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How to Find a Supportive Pillow for Neck Pain Relief

How to Find a Supportive Pillow for Neck Pain Relief


Lindsey S.
Sep 29, 2021

The Best Pillow for Neck Pain Relief and Recovery

If you work a desk job or any job that requires heavy computer use, you likely start to feel the strain in your neck by early afternoon, day after day.

When you finally hit the hay after an exhausting day, you want the weight to lift from your shoulders, letting you drift off to sleep with ease. But all too often, the relief never comes. Instead of finding comfort and support, your neck feels even worse when you lay down.

All of your bedding products contribute to a comfortable night sleep. However, your pillow can be the main culprit for neck strain and pain. If your pillow allows your neck to fall out of alignment with your spine, it can aggregate existing pain and make it difficult to fall asleep. The lack of support may also leave you feeling sore throughout the next day.

Fortunately, using a pillow that cradles your head and enforces alignment gives your neck time to rest and restore. There are a lot of inventive pillows available that fit the bill, you just have to know what to look for.

Note: Switching to the right pillow may help relieve neck pain symptoms, but you should see your doctor about the source of the pain and treatment options. We hope this guide helps you through the pillow shopping process, but only your doctor can offer medical advice.

What Causes Neck and Shoulder Pain While You Sleep?

When people experience stiffness in their neck, they often attribute it to “sleeping wrong.” Everyone falls asleep in an awkward position every once in a while, but if soreness becomes a frequent occurrence, you may have an issue with your pillow.

Just as bending your neck to look down at a computer for too long causes neck pain, so does sleeping with your neck bent. If your pillow is too thick or too thin, your neck has to adjust to an uncomfortable angle for your head to lay flat. Maintaining this bent position puts unnatural pressure on both your neck and shoulder muscles.

Moreover, sleeping without proper shoulder, neck, and head support can further agitate existing injuries and soreness. Sleep should be a time for your body to recuperate and your muscles to self-repair. But without proper support, your neck doesn’t get the chance to rest in a straight, stable position that facilitates healing.

You can also strain your neck by making quick, dramatic movements while you try to get comfortable. Whether it’s stress, uncomfortable room temperature, or a hard pillow keeping you awake, tossing and turning as you fight for sleep can cause tension or a minor sprain.

What to Look for in a Neck Pain Relief Pillow

While you buy throw pillows for decoration, your primary sleeping pillow should be all about structure, support, and optimal comfort. As you shop and compare your options, keep these deciding factors in mind.

How Often Should You Get a New Pillow? Check out our pillow upkeep guide to find out.

The Right Height (Pillow Thickness or Loft)

The height of your pillow determines the angle of your neck while you sleep. Regardless of your sleeping position—which we’ll discuss later on—you should sleep in a neutral position that puts minimum pressure on your neck, shoulders, back, and hips. To avoid strain and neck pain, you need to keep your head elevated at the same height as your spine.

As pictured below, using too thin or too thick a pillow forces your neck to bend at an unnatural angle. Sleeping with your neck bent distributes your weight unnaturally and stretches and strains your muscles instead of allowing them to relax.

Illustration showing proper pillow height for neck support

Firmness and Support

Just like mattresses, pillows come in different firmness levels and offer varying degrees of pushback and support. The firmer the pillow, the more it resists the weight of your head, neck, and shoulders and maintains its original shape. Conversely, softer pillows give in to the pressure and “deflate” or change shape as the filling flexes or redistributes.

The key to finding the right firmness for you is to prioritize neck and spinal alignment. However you sleep, your head, neck, and spine should form a straight line without sinkage or bends. The amount of pushback required to keep your head and neck aligned depends on your sleep position and how much your head and neck weigh.

Contouring Capabilities

Firmness and contouring go hand in hand but are two different qualities. Contouring pillows respond to pressure and mold to your body. They cradle your head and neck but return to their original shape when you shift positions or remove your weight entirely.

High-quality contouring pillows cushion your muscles and bones but provide enough support to keep your neck and spine aligned. On the other hand, some conforming pillows sink too far and allow your neck to fall out of line with your back, causing muscle strain.

Cooling Relief

Sleeping hot and sweating at night can make it even harder to fall asleep, adding insult to injury for those who experience neck pain. Fortunately, you can find pillows that stay cool on both sides all night, so you never have to switch to the “flip side” of your pillow for relief. The best cooling pillows are breathable, temperature-neutral, and have a moisture-wicking cover or exterior.

Looking for more ways to regulate temperature while you sleep? Consider breathable, moisture-wicking bedding, like our Tencelcooling sheet set.

A Pillow Designed for Your Sleep Position

Pillows aren’t a one-size-fits-all product. How you sleep—whether on your side, back, or stomach—determines how much support you need from your pillow and where you need it. Understanding your sleep position and how it affects your shoulders, neck, and head can help you find a pillow that counteracts the pressure put on your neck and straightens it to align with your spine.

How you sleepon your side, back, or stomach—determines how much support you need from your pillow and where you need it.

Side Sleepers

Due to the broadness of your shoulders, laying on your side on a flat surface naturally creates a space between your head and mattress. Unless you want to engage your neck muscles the entire night, you need a pillow that fills that gap and creates a level surface for your head.

In order to elevate your head to the same height as your spine, you’ll need a thicker pillow than back and stomach sleepers. Side sleepers typically require a pillow around 5 or 6 inches thick to fill the space and support their head.

Back Sleepers

Back sleepers don’t need as much loft from their pillows as side sleepers. If a back sleeper uses a pillow that’s too thick, it will push their neck forward, forcing it to bend slightly toward their chest. The best pillows for back sleepers have medium-loft, typically starting around 3 inches thick.

Some back sleepers tend to roll their head to one side, which twists and strains their neck. If you sleep with your neck turned and it causes pain, you may want a firmer pillow that stabilizes your head in a straight position to help break this habit.

Stomach Sleepers

Sleeping on your stomach doesn’t naturally lend itself to neutral neck and spinal alignment, and many people choose to train themselves out of this position if they experience back or neck pain. If you decide to keep sleeping in the prone position, you’ll need a pillow that accommodates the sleep position’s disadvantages.

Stomach sleepers generally use the thinnest pillows because too much loft cranes the neck backward, causing strain and stress in the neck and shoulder muscles. Most stomach sleepers prefer pillows no more than 2 inches thick, or opt for no pillow at all. Stomach sleepers also tend to choose softer pillows than back and side sleepers.

Ideal Pillow Materials

What’s inside your pillow makes all the difference for comfort and support. Common pillow fillers include feathers, down, down alternative, memory foam, latex, and more, and each material has unique advantages and disadvantages when it comes to loft, firmness, support, contouring, and cooling capabilities.

Especially if you experience frequent or severe neck pain, you’ll want to choose your pillow material carefully. Head over to our Pillow Material guide to find out which filing will work best for you.

Did you know? The Nolah blog features informative articles not only around pillows, but also general bedding care such as How to Fold a Fitted Sheet.

3 Pillows Designed for People with Neck Pain

When it comes to alleviating neck pain, a pillow’s structure and shape are just as important as the materials used. Sleepers seeking neck support and pain relief may want to consider a specialized pillow designed to reduce pressure on their neck and keep their upper body and neck aligned.

1. Adjustable Pillows

The Best Cooling Pillow for People with Neck Pain

With an adjustable pillow, you can add or remove filling or modify inserts to change the pillow’s loft and firmness. These pillows can suit side, back, and stomach sleepers alike, it just takes a little trial and error.

To find the sweet spot that fits your unique sleep position and body composition, simply add and remove filling or insert layers until laying on the pillow holds your neck in a straight line with your spine.

Most adjustable pillows fall into two categories: pillows with loose infill you can add or remove, or pillows with inserts you can switch out, add, or remove. While the insert model offers pre-designed comfort layers, the loose infill model allows for more customization and maximum breathability. Most adjustable pillows, regardless of their filling type, also have a dual-chamber design with a washable outer layer.

Adjustable pillows also vary in material. Those with insert layers typically contain sheets of foam, latex foam, or gel-infused foam. Most adjustable pillows with loose filling use shredded foam, but you can also find feather, down, kapock, and buckwheat hull adjustable models.

For neck pain relief, we recommend an adjustable shredded foam pillow that’s both contouring and cooling. Our Adjustable Shredded Foam Pillow features flexible foam cut into small cubes for maximum breathability and complete customization.

2. Cervical Pillows

The Best Neck Pain Relief Pillow for Combination Sleepers

Cervical pillows, also called neck pillows or orthopedic pillows, are ergonomically designed to support your neck and hold it in a neutral position as you sleep. With a rounded edge, cervical pillows mold to the natural curvature of your neck and comfortably cradle your head.

Orthopedic pillows typically use contouring foam, but come in a wide range of shapes and sizes. What all high-quality cervical pillows have in common is that they keep your neck straight and in line with your spine.

If you’re a combination sleeper looking for a supportive pillow that soothes neck pain, a cervical pillow is a great option. With a contouring cervical pillow, you can easily switch between your side and back without having to reposition your pillow.

3. Bed Wedge Pillows

The Best Anti-Snoring Pillow for Sleepers with Neck Pain

If you want a pillow that relieves both neck pain and snoring, you’ll love a wedge pillow. Wedge pillows vary in height, but all feature a gentle incline that elevates your head above your chest, preventing airway obstruction.

Wedge pillows don’t just prop up your head; they also support your upper back, shoulders, and neck, keeping everything aligned and in a neutral position. Whether you sleep on your side or back, your body only bends at the waist, which doesn’t put stress on sensitive pressure points.

Many sleepers with neck pain opt for wedge pillows with a detachable half-roll cervical pillow. This added panel of padding contours to your neck and provides targeted support.

Finding Neck Pain Relief with the Perfect Pillow

Much like your mattress, your pillow can make or break the quality of your sleep. While falling asleep on the wrong pillow can agitate your already-existing neck pain, a supportive pillow can give your neck the rest it needs to hold your head up high through another day at the office. So, before you rush in and buy the first neck pillow you see online, take some time to identify your unique support needs and what other qualities you want in a pain-relieving pillow.

Disclaimer: Nolah does not provide medical advice. All resources on the Nolah blog, including this article, are informational only and do not replace professional medical counsel. Talk to your doctor about any health, mental health, or sleep-related issues.

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