When considering pillows for this list, we looked mainly for foam and latex pillows. Why? Because research suggests that these materials are helpful for people with neck pain. According to a 2020 study, latex and memory foam pillows may offer more support than traditional pillows and may help reduce neck fatigue.
Additionally, we looked for ergonomic pillows designed to provide ample cervical support without elevating the head too much. A 2021 study found that increased pillow height changes the way your spine curves and increases pressure in your cervical spine, or neck.
Finally, we still included several alternative pillow options, like models filled with down and buckwheat, since a foam pillow may not work for everyone.
Neck pain can involve discomfort in the muscles, bones, nerves, joints, and discs between the bones. It can cause difficulty in movement.
Sometimes, a chronic health condition, such as fibromyalgia, causes neck pain. In other cases, it can occur as a result of an accident.
While periodic discomfort in your neck isn’t typically something to worry about, it’s important to seek medical care if your symptoms don’t go away within a week or escalate to other areas of your body.
It’s difficult to sleep when you’re experiencing any kind of pain, including chronic neck pain. You might toss and turn all night to find a comfortable sleeping position.
Researchers in a 2020 study that evaluated teens found that neck pain was linked to poor sleep quality in this age group.
Another 2020 study involved 2,328 individual twins. Researchers assessed their sleep quality and chronic neck pain. Chronic neck pain was significantly associated with poor sleep quality. Researchers concluded this association is partially confounded by genetic factors.
Fill matters, too. There are several types of pillow fill, ranging from latex to polyester to feather. The type of fill you choose is up to personal preference and it may take some time to find the fill that feels best for you.
Change it up
A general best practice is to change your pillow every 1 to 2 years, especially if you’re using one made from feathers. Over time, the filling can compress and not provide enough support.
If you’re choosing a memory foam pillow, you may be able to get away with changing it less often. A good indicator that it’s time for replacement is if you’re experiencing new pain or if the filling is no longer distributed evenly.
Regardless, it’s a good idea to wash your pillow every 6 months, following the manufacturer’s instructions. This is especially true if you have allergies or asthma. Drying on high heat will help kill dust mites.
If neck pain keeps you up at night, you might want to consider swapping your pillow for one that’s the right height. In the pillow world, height is usually described as loft.
The right amount of loft depends a lot on your preferred sleeping position. Stomach sleepers, for example, should opt for a pillow with a lower loft. Essentially, you want a pillow that will keep your spine in alignment without putting too much pressure on your neck.
You might also want to look for a pillow made of supportive foam or latex rather than down or down alternative.
Shape may also be a consideration. Cervical or ergonomic pillows are designed to provide support specifically for the neck and head, for instance.
Pillows can be made from a range of materials, including latex, polyester, cotton, and more. A 2020 study discovered that latex and memory foam are the best pillow materials for neck pain. This is because these materials provide neck support, which can improve sleep quality.
If you’ve changed your pillow but still aren’t finding relief, you can also try these tips:
Modify your overall posture when standing or sitting. Find a neutral spine in these positions, with your shoulders hovering directly over your hips and your ears over your shoulders.
Stretch your neck every 20 to 30 minutes when doing computer work, driving long distances, or doing other repetitive tasks that tax your neck. It may be helpful to set a reminder on your computer or phone to take breaks.
Use a backpack or rolling suitcase when carrying heavy loads. Either evenly distribute the weight or wheel it around. Using a shoulder bag puts excess strain on your neck and shoulders.
Use heat or ice to ease the pain by taking a warm shower or applying a hot or cold compress. This is especially effective in the first 2 to 3 days of an acute injury.
Make an appointment with your doctor if your neck pain doesn’t respond to a change in your pillow, posture, or other lifestyle measures. The Healthline FindCare tool can provide options in your area if you don’t already have a doctor.
In some cases, neck pain may be a symptom of a condition that needs medical attention. Possible causes include:
A pillow that kicks your spine out of neutral alignment can leave you with neck pain in the morning. Similarly, if a pillow doesn’t provide enough support, it can also leave you clutching your neck when you wake up.
What pillow loft works best for sleeping with neck pain?
The loft of your pillow is the compressed height of the pillow when your head is sleeping on it. The loft can affect your sleep quality and your pain. However, current research doesn’t suggest one pillow height for all back and side sleepers.
Can replacing your pillow improve neck pain?
If you’re experiencing neck pain, it could be the fault of your pillow. Especially if it’s old, it might not be supportive enough anymore.
Swapping for a new pillow doesn’t mean your neck pain will magically go away, though. Pillow preference is personal, and what works for one person might not work for you. So a bit of experimenting is to be expected.
Additionally, not all neck pain is the fault of a bad pillow. If a new pillow doesn’t seem to help, be sure to talk with your doctor.
What kind of pillow should you use for neck and shoulder pain?
Some 2020 research suggests that memory and latex foams are the ideal materials to help prevent neck fatigue.
But that doesn’t mean other types of pillows won’t work for you. You may want to try a few to see what feels most comfortable to you.
How firm should a pillow be to alleviate neck pain?
A somewhat firm pillow is generally best for neck pain, especially if you sleep on your side. A pillow that is too soft and unsupportive will put pressure on your cervical spine. But the pillow should still have some softness. Any pillow that feels uncomfortable is going to be bad news for your neck.
Can neck pain be a sign of something serious?
While this is rare, neck pain can sometimes be a sign of something serious. Seek medical attention if you’re experiencing additional symptoms alongside neck pain, such as numbness in your arms and hands, fever and headache, or shooting pain down your shoulder.
Is a high, medium, or low loft pillow better for neck pain?
It depends on what type of sleeper you are. If you’re a stomach sleeper, it may be best to choose a pillow with a low loft to minimize the pressure on your spine. If you’re a back or side sleeper, a medium loft pillow that allows your head, neck, and spine to form a straight line may be right for you.
Finally, if you’re a side sleeper with bigger shoulders, a high loft pillow may be suitable. Note the pillow should equal the distance between the ears and the edge of the shoulders.
Getting relief from neck pain may be as simple as changing your pillow.
There are a number of options to suit a variety of needs and budgets, so it may be worth trying a few to see what works for you. Many companies offer money-back guarantees, so you’re covered if something doesn’t work.
If you still have neck pain after changing your pillow or your sleeping position, consider making an appointment with your doctor to rule out more serious conditions.
Last medically reviewed on May 16, 2023
How we reviewed this article:
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Safiri S, et al. (2020). Global, regional, and national burden of neck pain in the general population, 1990-2017; systematic analysis of the Global Burden of Disease Study 2017. https://www.bmj.com/content/368/bmj.m791