What Is Neck Pain?
The neck is responsible for bearing the entire weight of the head, and it’s not surprising that this delicate part of the body is highly susceptible to injury. The 2018 US Burden of Disease study found that neck pain is rising in importance as a leading cause of disability among the American population. Most sources estimate that between 25 and 30 percent of people suffer from neck pain every year. While many episodes of neck pain resolve naturally, for some it can become a chronic condition with adverse consequences for their quality of life.
Neck pain can be caused by a number of factors. It may stem from an injury or a chronic condition such as arthritis, or it may arise from daily habits such as poor posture or too many hours of sitting at a computer. While symptoms vary, people with neck pain often experience:
Reading: Best pillow for neck support
- Neck pain, especially during repetitive activities or long periods of sitting upright
- Limited range of motion
- Muscle spasms
- Poor sleep quality
If you have severe pain or additional symptoms, or if you’re not sure what’s causing your neck pain, it’s a good idea to visit a doctor to rule out underlying conditions.
Regular exercise and a healthy body weight are thought to have a positive impact on chronic neck pain. The American Chiropractic Association notes that neck pain often goes hand-in-hand with high stress levels and obesity.
Neck Pain and Sleep
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The 8 hours you spend in bed every night is a critical time for those who experience neck pain. The positions you adopt as you sleep can either relax your neck or put it under additional strain. As part of your sleep setup, a supportive pillow should promote proper neck and spine alignment.
Not only can an unsupportive pillow exacerbate your neck pain, but studies show that the wrong pillow can be the direct cause of discomfort during the night. This leads to nighttime awakenings, creating a vicious circle that makes it difficult to get the rest you need to recover from neck pain.
Your pillow is unlikely to be the sole source of your neck pain. However, choosing the right pillow and adopting a healthy sleeping position can help ease pressure on the neck. You should replace your pillow when it’s no longer able to provide the proper support.
How to Choose a Pillow for Neck Pain
For people who experience neck pain, choosing the right pillow can be a key step toward living pain-free. The right pillow will depend on your individual needs. We’ll walk you through the most important considerations, including how to choose the best material, shape, and thickness for your individual sleeping style.
What to Consider When Purchasing a Pillow for Neck Pain
Most people don’t give much thought to their pillow, beyond choosing a pillow that’s nice and squishy for immediate comfort. This means that when we do realize our pillow may be contributing to our neck pain, we may not know how to go about choosing the best pillow. Shoppers in this position may be susceptible to misleading marketing and end up choosing a pillow that’s ill-suited for their needs.
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To help you get started, we’ve made a list of the most important factors. Focusing on these factors and having a basic understanding of pillow features and construction can help you find the pillow that works best for you.
What Pillow Materials are Best for Neck Pain?
The best pillow for neck and shoulder pain is firm enough to hold the head at a healthy angle, but soft enough to alleviate pressure points. Most sleepers find success with either a memory foam, latex, buckwheat, or feather pillow, as these materials offer the best balance of support and pressure relief.
- Memory Foam: Memory foam molds in response to heat and pressure, contouring to form a supportive cradle around the head and neck. Memory foam pillows are hypoallergenic, cheap, and widely available, either in solid or shredded form. However, they have a limited lifespan, and the material’s slow response to pressure may be frustrating for some combination sleepers. The material is also prone to trapping heat.
- Buckwheat: Buckwheat hulls naturally interlock and hold their shape, making them a great choice for head and neck support. As a natural material, buckwheat is naturally breathable, resistant to allergens, durable, and environmentally friendly. On the downside, buckwheat pillows tend to command a high price-point, and they may take some getting used to as they aren’t as soft as other traditional pillow types and do make some noise as you change positions.
- Feather: Good quality feather pillows are soft and offer excellent conforming. They’re also often customizable, allowing owners to adjust the loft by taking out feathers or adding more. Unfortunately, feather pillows tend to lose their loft as the feathers get compressed over time. Many people also find that the feathers may become displaced under the weight of their head, affecting the support they provide.
- Latex: Natural latex has a buoyant feel that holds the neck in place while minimizing pressure points. Many latex pillows feature pincore holes for improved temperature regulation. The major downside to latex is that latex pillows usually come in one solid piece, so users can’t adjust them into a customized shape. While many people turn to latex as a natural and sustainable option, organic and other certifications tend to raise the price tag.
- Down: Made from the inner feathers of ducks and geese, down is exceedingly soft and lightweight, and pillows made with this fill material can be reshaped to suit the user’s preference. Due to its high price tag and ability to provoke allergies in some people, many sleepers opt for down alternative, made from polyester fibers. Unfortunately, both down and down alternative pillows easily lose their shape and tend to be too soft to adequately support the neck.
- Polyfoam: Most polyfoam pillows offer some contouring and boast a quicker response to pressure than memory foam, although like memory foam they will trap heat. Polyfoam pillows are lightweight, affordable, and hypoallergenic. However, they develop permanent indentations over time and will need to be replaced more often than other pillow types.
What is the Best Pillow Positioning for Neck Pain?
Sleep experts recommend either back or side sleeping if you experience neck pain. Sleeping on your stomach causes your head to bend at a sharp angle and arches your spine, which puts unwanted pressure on your neck. Strict stomach sleepers should choose a pillow with a low loft to minimize pressure.
For best results, back and side sleepers should ensure that their head, neck, and top of the spine form a straight line. Sleeping with a pillow that’s too high or too low can cause aches and pains. Likewise, sleeping with your head rolled to one side or the other is also likely to cause neck pain.
- Side with Elevated Neck: In order for side sleepers to avoid neck pain, it’s important to keep the head in line with the spine. The best pillow for side sleepers with neck pain should have a loft that equals the distance between the ears and the edge of the shoulders. This means that people with bigger shoulders usually need a higher loft. Since the neck sits naturally higher than the head, cervical pillows have an elevated area under the neck that helps support the neck and encourage proper alignment.
- Back with Two Pillows: Usually, pillows for back sleepers should have a medium loft that raises the head just enough to sit in line with the neck. But back sleepers face a similar problem to side sleepers in that most pillows don’t support the higher curve of the neck. Those who have trouble finding a properly supportive pillow may opt for a small rounded pillow under the neck for added support in addition to the main pillow.
Other Tips for Sleepers with Neck Pain
In addition to choosing the right pillow, you can reduce neck pain through lifestyle changes like adopting proper posture, taking stretching breaks, and generally being more active. People who experience neck pain should avoid shoulder bags, slouching, and long periods of sitting at the computer.
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- Choose the Right Mattress: Your body’s overall position is influenced not only by your pillow, but also your mattress. Plusher mattresses allow your body to sink down further, meaning you’ll need a lower-loft pillow. The opposite holds true for firmer mattresses, which will require a higher pillow to maintain proper alignment of the neck and spine.
- Engage in Physical Therapy: From daily habits to more serious regimens, there are plenty of exercises you can do to relax your neck muscles and relieve strain on the neck, shoulders, and upper back. A certified massage therapist or chiropractor may also be able to help. Always consult a health professional before starting any kind of treatment.
- Use Ice or Heat: Many people with neck pain receive instant relief from a hot or cold compress, or from taking a warm shower. This may not cure your neck problems, but it can be a helpful short-term solution.