pillows stacked on a bed

Neck pain has become a very common problem over the past few decades. The number of people complaining of sleep disturbances has also been on the rise. Your pillow has a direct impact on your head, neck, and shoulders; so it is important to consider the best type of pillows to use for neck pain. 

A good-night’s sleep is necessary in order for humans to restore physically, psychologically and to regain strength in preparation for the next day.1 As neck and shoulder pain have been increasing and sleep disorders have been climbing, many sleeping accessories that can help improve your quality of sleep (including a wide range of pillows), have been studied and reviewed. 

Why should you care about your pillow?

Studies have shown that individuals who use a supportive or a functional-type pillow report less neck pain, decreased shoulder fatigue, fewer headaches and an overall improved quality of sleep, than individuals who typically use a regular-type pillow.1

Improper positioning of the head during sleep can result in muscular tension in the cervical region of the spine, causing long-lasting neck pain. If the spine is not properly aligned, muscles are unable to relax, leading to pain and stiffness in the neck area.3 In addition, this leads to headaches, shoulder pain, overall physical and mental fatigue and even breathing problems.1

For this reason, to reduce unpleasant symptoms within the head, neck, and shoulder regions, it is imperative to consider what might be the best pillow for neck pain – to ensure your spine alignment is not jeopardized. 

Types of Pillows

When choosing the correct type of pillow, several factors must be considered. Researchers have found that a specialized, supportive neck pillow can be beneficial to help relieve pressure that is placed on the neck during sleep. 

Special considerations may be required for specific health conditions. For example, people with fibromyalgia tend to feel better when using a pillow that is more of a firm or rigid-type of consistency.2 People with a cervical disc disease, after a whiplash injury, or after a compressed nerve injury, may need additional considerations for their body alignment.3

Sleep position can also play an important role when deciding the best type of pillow design for your situation or condition.

The correct type of pillow is the one that supports your neck and your spine to maintain its proper alignment. As a result, all muscles remain in a relaxed position, reducing pain in the neck and in the shoulders, ultimately improving sleep. To reduce pain and fatigue of the muscles in the neck region, it is important to consider the height of the neck, especially for side-sleepers.1 Important aspects when considering the best pillow for neck pain are the height, shape, contour and consistency of the pillow. 

Different Types of Material

Pillows consisting of latex or memory foam tend to help to reduce headaches and shoulder pain.1  Additionally, latex, memory foam or pillows filled with plastic capsules, may assist with alleviation of neck fatigue, compared with pillows made out of materials such as feathers or cotton.1 Elasticity of their composition allows maintaining their original shape, therefore providing better support for the neck. With this said, many back-sleepers have reported to benefit from a fluffier pillow (such as one filled with feathers). It is recommended for people who tend to sleep on their backs to use a feather-filled pillow that is thinner, elevating the chin and the head slightly, so that the head is not lifted too far back.1 Medicinal pillows with herbs also have a long history among traditional Chinese medicine for management of neck pain.2

Cervical & Water-Based Pillow for Chronic Neck Pain

Individuals with chronic pain in the neck region may benefit from supportive pillows that assist with maintaining proper curvature of the cervical spine, reducing pain and headaches. The correct height of the pillows is crucial. A pillow that is too high can cause increased pressure to the head and the cervical spine.1 Studies show that roll-shaped cervical pillows or water-based pillows contribute to reducing abnormal breathing for people with sleep apnea. These types of pillows have been reported to be best for people with chronic neck pain.2

Peanut-Shaped Pillow & Contour-Type Pillow

These types of pillows have been reported to be the most helpful for individuals who suffer from shoulder pain or discomfort. This indicates that pillows with a flat horizontal plane and a gentle vertical curve for the neck are effective shapes in reducing discomfort in the shoulder region.1

Firm or Flat Pillows

Firm pillows (or even extra firm) are recommended for side-sleepers.5 Many side sleepers report shoulder pain. A firm pillow helps to fill up the space between the neck and the shoulders, allowing for the spine to be properly aligned. A firm pillow serves as a wedge between the head and the shoulder, reducing pressure and therefore, discomfort. A firm pillow that does not easily change its form or consistency, significantly supports the head when lying on the side for a prolonged period of time.2 Placing a pillow between your knees can also assist in keeping the spine and joints properly aligned. Firm pillows placed underneath the knees, are also encouraged to be used for back sleepers to ensure spinal alignment.5

People who tend to sleep on their stomachs often complain about having pain in their neck. This happens because the head and the neck are consistently rotated to the side, which can lead to discomfort and stiffness. A soft flat pillow is recommended for stomach sleepers so that the neck maintains its natural curve.4 People who sleep on their stomachs should place their pillows so that the neck is as straight as possible.5

References:

  1. Son, J., Jung, S., Song, H., Kim, J., Bang, S., & Bahn, S. (2020). A Survey of Koreans on Sleep Habits and Sleeping Symptoms Relating to Pillow Comfort and Support. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 17(1). https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph17010302

2. Persson L, & Moritz U. (1998). Neck support pillows: a comparative study. Journal of Manipulative & Physiological Therapeutics, 21(4), 237–240.

3. Persson, L. (2006). Neck pain and pillows – A blinded study of the effect of pillows on non-specific neck pain, headache and sleep. Advances in Physiotherapy, 8(3), 122-127.

4. SILVERMAN, R. G. (2017). The rest of the story: Why sleeping position matters. Chiropractic Economics63(13), 82–85. 

5. S. L. (2018). Pillow Talk: Sleep more soundly with the right joint support. Arthritis Today32(4), 56.

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