Can Your Pillow Cause Neck Pain?

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Neck stiffness or soreness is – quite literally – a giant pain in the neck. A little more than 14 percent of Americans reported neck pain or problems in a 2016 report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Can pillows cause neck pain?

Waking up with a sore neck can set an irritating tone for the day. In some cases, our pain is age-related or connected to another health issue, so always check with a doctor. In some cases, however, it’s simply the result of a bad pillow.

The good news is that if it is your pillow causing the problem, it’s easy to make a change, once you know what to look for.

We’ve put together advice and tips from the experts so can know if you need to find a better pillow that will leave you feeling refreshed and comfortable in the morning.

How to Know If Your Pillow Is Causing Neck Pain

If you’re waking up in the morning with a stiff neck, your pillow could be the cause of your neck pain. The main reason your pillow can cause neck pain is if it forces your head out of neutral alignment.

“A good sleeping posture is key to sleeping soundly, night after night, and to waking without pain and stiffness,” says Dr. Michael Breus, a clinical psychologist and noted sleep expert in a blog post on his website. “Your pillow helps to support a healthy sleep posture.”

So what does that posture look like?

pillow alignment

“A body in alignment, from the knees and hips, through the spine to the chest and shoulders, head and neck”, says Breus. “If your neck and shoulders don’t get sufficient support, or are propped at an angle that causes twisting, craning, or crunching, this puts your spine and body out of alignment, leading strain and discomfort in your neck, shoulders, and back, as well as sleeplessness.”

Why Your Sleeping Position Matters

It’s also likely that your sleeping position is contributing to your neck pain. Some positions put extra strain on the neck, and if you’re sleeping an average of 7-9 hours each night in the wrong position, that could cause a big problem.

The worst sleeping position for your neck is stomach sleeping. When you sleep on your stomach, you have to turn your head to one side in order to breathe, which turns your head out of proper alignment. And if you’re using a pillow, that pushes your head up higher than it should be.

Make sure you’re using a good pillow for stomach sleepers that doesn’t push your head up too much, or just try to switch to a better sleeping position.

can pillows cause neck pain for stomach sleepers

Side stomach and back sleeping is better for the neck, so long as you still properly support your head with a pillow that keeps your neck in alignment.

Pillow Recommendations Based on Sleeping Position

The truth is that finding the right pillow to support and align your neck and back properly may take some trial and error.

There is no hard and fast rule when it comes to choosing the best pillow because, in reality, nearly all of us switch sleeping positions throughout the night, says Breus.

If you primarily sleep in one of these positions – or at least wake up in them – here’s what type of pillow might be best for you.

Side Sleepers

Just over 40 percent of Americans sleep on their sides, according to the National Sleep Foundation.

Typically side sleepers need the thickest or most supportive pillow, usually four-to-six-inches thick, say experts. This should be tall enough to cover the gap between the top of your shoulder and your neck.

RELATED: Best Pillows for Side Sleepers

Back Sleepers

Pillows for back sleepers need to be flat enough to support the natural curvature of the neck. You may initially want to consider a soft pillow but if you have neck pain and sleep on your back, look for a pillow that provides additional support, while maintaining the softness that’s comfortable for you, says Breus.

RELATED: Best Pillows for Back Sleepers

Stomach Sleepers

“Sleeping on your stomach is tough on your spine because the back is arched and your neck is turned to the side, says the Harvard Medical School’s Harvard Health Publishing blog. If your habit of stomach sleeping is set in stone, try a pillow that is about three inches thick to make sure your spine is able to stay aligned, says Dr. Rocco Monto, an orthopedic surgeon in Nantucket, Mass to

RELATED: Best Pillows for Stomach Sleepers

Can Pillows Cause Neck Pain? Our Summary

To alleviate neck stiffness and pain caused by a bad pillow, look for one that helps to create a natural alignment along your body, including supporting the natural curvature of your head and neck, say experts. Check out our list of the best pillows for neck pain for some great options.

Your sleep position will play a key role in how much loft, thickness and support you need in a pillow. Try to avoid sleeping on your stomach if possible, as its more likely to add extra strain to your back and neck.

And don’t forget to think about your personal preferences and needs. Those with allergies will want to avoid down or something hypoallergenic like polyester fiber filling or memory foam. 

Factor in how plush or firm your mattress is, suggests Breus. ” If you use a firm mattress, then a softer pillow may be better, because the pillow is lying on a firm surface and needs to adapt to the pressure of the weight of your head in your starting sleep position,” he says in his blog post. “If you have had a softer mattress, then a firmer pillow may be better to keep your head and neck aligned.”

It may seem out of the ordinary but if possible, have someone take a photo of you resting – both on your mattress and with a pillow – to help pinpoint areas where you could unintentionally be adding stress to your body and creating unnecessary soreness.

[Editor’s Note: The information provided should not be considered a substitute for professional advice. Please consult a sleep doctor or other medical expert if you have questions related to your own health.]

Featured image: wavebreakmedia/Shutterstock

Katie Golde

Katie Golde

Katie manages the day to day operations of the Mattress Clarity news site and reviews sleep products in addition to writing and editing sleep news. She hails from Austin, where she lives with her growing family. She is a Certified Sleep Science Coach and has a master’s degree in Journalism from Northwestern University and has a background in health and science content. Her work can be found in print and online publications like Discover Magazine, USA Today and The Huffington Post.