Most adults in the United States have experienced neck pain at some point in their lives. The type of pillow you sleep on can go a long way to making neck pain better or worse. What kind of pillow should you use?
The neck, also known as the cervical spine, is supposed to have a 20-40 degree C-shaped curve that supports your head in a neutral position. If you sleep on your back, your pillow should support this C-curve shape. If you sleep on your side, your pillow should hold your head in a straight line with the rest of your body.
Lots of things can cause neck pain: motor vehicle accidents, whiplash, falling, poor posture, injuries, and sleeping on the wrong pillow.
When your head moves forward of your body, like when you’re looking down at your cell phone, the curve in your neck gets flatter, and yur head feels heavier to your neck and shoulders. For every inch forward your head moves, an extra 10 lbs of force is put into your neck and shoulder muscles. Over time, this puts pressure on the discs in your neck, makes the muscles in your neck and shoulders spasm, and leads to neck and back pain.
This same thing happens if you sleep on the wrong pillow – bad alignment of your neck changes the pressure on your discs and spine, makes your muscles spasms, and causes headaches and neck pain that can affect your sleep.
So what kind of pillow should you sleep on?
If you have a normal healthy neck curve, you should sleep on a pillow that holds that shape comfortably whether you sleep on your back or your side. A foam contour pillow has two curves: a small curve, for sleeping on your back, and a bigger curve, for sleeping on your side. High quality foam pillows come in different sizes, so you can pick the size that best fits your body shape. The most common size is about 4 inches. Check out the list below for our recommendations on the best foam contour pillow.
Should you sleep on a firm pillow or a soft pillow? Soft pillows might feel good at first, but they don’t provide much support. Feather pillows are often too soft. This lack of support might make your neck pain worse over time. Studies show a firm foam pillow provides the best support.
Pro Tip: Don’t sleep on your stomach! This is just asking for neck pain!
A change in the shape of your neck is called cervical hypolordosis or hyperlordosis. This means your neck is either too straight or too curved. If you have chronic neck pain from a whiplash injury, or from poor posture sitting all day and looking down at your cell phone or computer, you might need a special pillow. A cervical traction pillow can help to restore the natural curve in your neck over time. The McKenzie roll is the most commonly recommended cervical roll pillow. If you have neck pain, get checked by a physical therapist to see if a McKenzie roll or special pillow is right for you.
So what pillow should you get? Here are our recommendations:
Best Overall: Tempur-Pedic TEMPUR-Ergo Neck Pillow
- A high quality pillow to support the natural shape of your neck, it comes in small (3”), medium (4”), large (4.25”), cooling, and travel sizes
Treating Cervical Hypolordosis: McKenzie Cervical Roll ($17)
- Your physical therapist might recommend a cervical roll
Most Adjustable: Aeris Adjustable Memory Foam Contour Pillow
- Not sure what height you need? This pillow lets you adjust through the full range of contour heights from 2.7 inches to 4.7 inches.
Most Affordable: Aeromax Memory Foam Contour Pillow
- You like the Tempur-pedic, but it’s a little expensive and you’d like to try something more affordable. This pillow has two sizes available.
Still don’t know which pillow to get? Do you have more questions, or want some advice based on your unique circumstances? Make an appointment with one of our physical therapists today to ask about your neck pain and which pillow is right for you.
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