It’s normal and common to wake up with a stiff or painful neck. People often assume this is due to an old mattress because the neck pain can extend to pain in other parts of the body, including arms, back, shoulders, and hips, and it could also cause numbness in the limbs and migraine headaches. Plus, the pain and stiffness could affect your sleep, which impacts your mood and ability to function normally.
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But even though you may have pain all over, the problem starts with the pillow and snowballs from there. To put it simply, the best pillow to prevent neck pain is the one that has the correct shape, size, thickness, and construction to match your body.
The Science Behind Neck pain
Pain in the neck has the potential to cause pain, stiffness, and other health concerns throughout the body, which is why preventing it is critical, and understanding where the pain comes from is the first step in doing so.
The neck is made up of muscles, tendons, cartilage, and 7 tiny bones. The bones are not connected to each other, but instead suspended in a bed a fluid, and their job is to protect the central nervous system and support the head. When parts of the neck become pinched or compressed, it causes pain and stiffness. Unfortunately, the neck is the part of the spine that is most susceptible to pinching and compression, especially when it’s laid on for several hours, so keeping it in a straight, comfortable position is key to preventing pain from occurring—this is where the right pillow comes in.
Pillows for Neck Pain— Key Considerations
Shape & Loft: Because of the natural curvature of the anatomy around the head, neck, and shoulders, a pillow that is the correct shape and size is best for preventing pain. Ideally, a rounded pillow, which is also called a contoured, cervical, or orthopedic pillow, would give support in all of the right places. But, many pillows designed to prevent neck pain have the traditional, even-surfaced shape that can work effectively for the right people.
Since the shape and size of everyone’s body varies, some people may need more loft in their pillow, or more support in their pillow. Generally, low loft refers to pillows that are less than 3 inches thick, medium loft is between 3 and 5 inches thick, and high loft is more than 5 inches thick. For some, a pillow that is over stuffed or too firm could cause pain, but for others, it could perfectly address the curvature of their neck. Either way, it’s best to find a pillow that will keep your neck elevated and supported enough to stay in line with your spine. Usually this means finding a pillow that is thicker under your neck, and thinner under you head.
Composition: Pillows for neck pain are made from a variety of materials including feathers, memory foam or shredded memory foam, water, polyester, latex, down or down alternative, wool, cotton, bamboo, or buckwheat. The most recommended materials, however, are feather, memory foam or shredded memory foam, and water, and if you find a pillow that allows you to adjust the amount of fill, that’s even better.
Each of the recommended materials come with their advantages and disadvantages. Feather pillows provide soft comfort for the head but may not be as supportive in the neck area. Memory foam does a good job of supporting the neck, but it could be too stiff and cause pain. The shredded version of memory foam could alleviate some of the concerns of regular memory foam because it is better able to adapt to the shape of your body, and some pillows allow you to add or take away shredded pieces. Water-filled pillows are heavy but allow you to adjust the thickness by adding and taking away water, and they adapt well to any shape.
Sleep Position: The position in which you sleep can influence whether or not you experience pain the next morning. Ideally, the correct pillow will minimize the effect your sleeping position has, but sleep experts recommend sleeping on your side or your back to prevent neck pain. Stomach sleeping is not recommended because it causes your spine to arch in an unnatural way and causes strain on the neck. Another note about sleep position: if you intended to buy a pillow with unique contours, consider the fact that the specialized shape may not fit every sleep position you move through during the night.
What Are the Top Six Pillows for Neck Pain?
Here is a summary of the top six pillows for neck pain, each offering a unique combination of desirable features. All of these products are highly rated, and sleep tested.
Pillows for Neck Pain— Final Thoughts
There are many pillows available that claim to alleviate neck pain, but only you know what your spine needs to be comfortable. Everyone’s anatomy is different, so find the pillow that has the ideal loft, support, and construction to keep your spine in line. However, there are other features you may want to look for in a pillow as well. For example, you may need a pillow that is hypoallergenic and free from any toxins or harmful chemicals. You may also want one that is easy to clean or machine washable. Plus, if you’re sensitive to temperature when you sleep, you will want a pillow that stays cool all night.
It’s important to remember that your body will need some time to adjust to a new pillow, so test drive it for a few nights before you make your final decision about it. Keep in mind that whichever pillow you choose will need to be replaced as often as once per year because all pillows naturally lose their shape and thickness over time. This is also where the price of your pillow can play a role. Many people are willing to splurge on one good pillow but replacing an expensive pillow each year could cause you to reconsider your choice. For your reference, the recommended pillows listed above range in price from $26 to $60.
With all of this advice, you should be ready to purchase your new pillow and start enjoying nights and mornings free from neck pain.