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Back pain is, unfortunately, quite common among adults and children. Causes of back pain may include anything from muscle strains and arthritis to skeletal irregularities such as scoliosis. The right pillow can mitigate some of the pressure and discomfort associated with back pain — and by the same token, choosing the wrong pillow can have the opposite effect. Sleepers with back pain should consider factors like pillow size, shape, loft (thickness), and material composition when deciding which pillow will best meet their needs.
This guide explores the causes and symptoms of conditions that can lead to back pain, as well as tips for pillow buyers and our picks for the best pillows for back pain.
According to the Mayo Clinic, common sources of back pain include the following conditions:
Symptoms of chronic back pain may include the following:
Back pain may not necessitate medical care, but the Mayo Clinic urges patients to meet with their physician if they experience the following symptoms:
Individuals who experience back pain can adjust or reposition their pillows in order to alleviate their discomfort. According to Healthline, the following methods may be suitable for different sleepers:
There are six standard sizes for pillows, as well as smaller specialty sizes normally associated with specific pillow types (such as orthopedic memory foam pillows). The following table breaks down the width and length dimensions of these seven sizes, as well as suitable pillowcase measurements.
|Pillow Size||Dimensions||Pillow Case Size and Dimensions||Notes|
|Small||20W” x 12L”||Specialty sizes||Normally found with orthopedic/cervical pillows (see below)|
|Standard||20W” x 26L”||Standard (20-21W” x 30-32″L)||The most common pillow size, as well as the most compact and usually the least expensive|
|Super Standard||20W” x 28L”||Standard (20-21W” x 30-32″L)||Slightly longer than the Standard, but uses Standard-size pillowcases|
|Queen||20W” x 30L”||Standard (20-21W” x 30-32″L)|
Queen (20-22W” x 30-34L”)
|The second most common pillow size, and suitable for most people who toss and turn|
|King||20W” x 36L”||King (20-21W” x 36-41″L)||Good for people who toss and turn, and also makes good headrests and backrests|
|Euro||26W” x 26L”|
24W” x 24L”
22W” x 22L”
20W” x 20L”
18W” x 18L”
16W” x 16L”
|Euro (dimensions vary)||The only standard pillow size that is square-shaped, and not normally used for primary sleeping pillows|
|Body Pillow||54W” x 20L”|
48W” x 20L”
|Body pillow (dimensions vary)||The longest pillow size, mostly suitable for side sleepers and pregnant women|
Pillow shape is also important for people with back pain. Although a wide selection of pillow shapes are available, pillows generally fall into one of these two categories:
Lastly, let’s discuss pillow loft, a term that refers to how thick a pillow is when not bearing weight. Specific loft measurements vary by model, but there are three general loft categories:
The loft will help determine how supportive and comfortable the pillow feels, and whether it is suitable for people with back pain. However, there are several factors to take into account when selecting a pillow based on loft. These include:
Sleep position: Choosing the right pillow based on loft depends on whether the sleeper prefers the back, side, or stomach position.
Pillow position: People who sleep with a pillow completely beneath often prefer medium-loft pillows because there is less space. For those who sleep with a pillow partially beneath their head, then a medium- or high-loft pillow may be needed to fill the larger gap.
Mattress type: Certain mattresses, such as all-foam and latex models, are designed to sink deeply beneath the sleeper’s body. A low-loft pillow may be most suitable for these mattresses because there is less space between the neck and the mattress surface. Other mattresses, such as innersprings and hybrids, are less responsive and will not sink as much. A medium- or high-loft pillow can help fill the extra space and provide more support.
Body weight: People with above-average weights (more than 230 pounds) may sink deeper into their mattress than lighter individuals, and thus prefer a low- or medium-loft pillow that won’t elevate their heads too much. People with below-average weights (less than 130 pounds) may prefer medium- or high-loft pillows because they don’t sink as much.
Head size: People with larger-than-average heads are more likely to feel comfortable on a high-loft pillow that won’t sink too deeply. Low- or medium-loft pillows may be the best option for those with small or average-size heads
Shoulder width: People with wider shoulder spans experience larger gaps between their head/neck and their pillow, and may need a higher-loft pillow to compensate for the space. Those with narrower shoulders usually feel more comfortable with low- or medium-loft pillows.
It’s important to note that many pillows offer adjustable loft. The owner simply unzips the pillow cover and adds or removes the fill material to increase or decrease the loft. Adjustable-loft pillows may be the best option for people whose loft preferences tend to vary from night to night.
Pillows come in a wide selection of fill materials, each with unique benefits and drawbacks for sleepers with back pain. The table below lists pros, cons, and back pain ratings for the seven most common pillow materials.
|Pillow Material||Description||Pros||Cons||Neck Pain Rating|
|Buckwheat||The pillows are filled with five to 10 pounds of buckwheat hulls, or outer shells||Adjustable loft|
Too firm for some
Heavy and difficult to move
Buckwheat pillows offer adjustable loft and sleep fairly cool, but many people with back pain find they are too firm
|Down||The pillows contain the soft inner plumage of ducks or geese, and may also be padded with outer feathers||Adjustable loft|
Too soft for some
Most down pillows are not suitable for sleepers with back pain because they are excessively soft and will lose their shape quickly
|Down Alternative||The pillows are filled with polyester fibers that mimic the softness of real down|
Too soft for some
Most sleepers with back pain do not feel comfortable on down alternative pillows because they are too soft and will become flat rather quickly
|Feather||Pillows are filled with outer feathers of ducks or geese (as opposed to down, or inner plumage)||Adjustable loft|
Feather pillows tend to be firmer than down pillows, making them more suitable for people with back pain
|Latex||Pillows contain solid latex, a substance extracted from the sap of rubber trees||Close conforming|
Retain full shape without flattening
Dense and heavy
Latex pillows offer even support, but the loft is not adjustable
|Memory Foam||Pillows may contain shredded or solid pieces of memory foam, which softens when it comes into contact with body heat||Close conforming|
Adjustable loft if shredded
Memory foam pillows conform closely and alleviate a high amount of pressure; most orthopedic pillows are made from memory foam
|Polyester||Pillows contain shredded polyfoam, which has a similar feel to memory foam, or interlocking polyester fibers that give the pillow a fuller shape||Low cost|
Adjustable loft when shredded
Memory foam pillows provide more pain and pressure relief, but polyfoam pillows can be a low-cost alternative for people with back pain
Additionally, some pillows contain interior water chambers that can be filled or drained to adjust the loft. The chambers are usually padded with foam to make the pillow more comfortable. Many sleepers with back pain claim that water chamber pillows alleviate pain and pressure to a noticeable extent.
Now, let’s look at the top-rated pillows for back pain. The following six pillows have earned the highest satisfaction ratings from customers and owners. To learn more about these products, visit the links in the second-to-last row of the table.
|Brand||Coop Home Goods||Mediflow||Nest Bedding||Snuggle-Pedic||Tempur-Pedic||WonderSleep|
|Model||Eden||The Water Pillow (Gel Memory Foam)||Easy Breather Pillow||Ultra Luxury Bamboo Combination Pillow||Symphony||Shredded Memory Foam Pillow|
|Cost (est.)||$70 to $90||$70||$100 to $130||$50 to $70||$100||$70 (2-pack)|
|Material||Shredded memory foam||Gel memory foam with inner water chamber||Shredded memory foam||Shredded memory foam||Solid memory foam||Shredded memory foam|
|Trial Period||100 nights||30 nights||Lifetime|
Fees apply after 100 nights
|120 nights||None (no returns accepted)||None|
|Warranty||5 years||3 years||Lifetime||20 years||5 years||1 year|
|Tuck Customer Satisfaction Rating||78% (14,214 customer reviews)||87% (289 customer reviews)||90% (517 customer reviews)||90% (3,642 customer reviews)||81% (542 customer reviews)||92% (977 customer reviews)|
For more information about pillow options, please check out the following Tuck.com pages: