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.

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 you can find a new pillow that will leave you feeling refreshed and comfortable in the morning.

Aiming for neutral spinal alignment

In some cases, neck pain can be brought on by the wrong sleeping position and pillow combination. Sometimes it’s just a case of a bad sleeping position – we’re talking to you, stomach sleepers!

“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? “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.” solar22/Shutterstock

Pillow recommendations based on sleep 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 SleepersJust 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.
  • Back Sleepers: This pillow needs to be flat enough to support the natural curvature of your 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.
  • 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 Health.com.

Overall

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.

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 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

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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.