Best Pillows for Neck Pain

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Neck pain is a common condition among adults. In most cases, people develop neck pain due to muscle strain, worn joints, or nerve compression — but in some cases, it may indicate a more serious condition. However, many people experience nightly neck pain due to their pillow choice. Certain factors, such as material composition and loft (or thickness), can affect how supportive and comfortable pillows feel to sleepers with neck pain. Sleeper position also plays a role in choosing the right pillow.

This guide will look at the causes and symptoms of conditions that cause neck pain, offer some tips for choosing the right pillow based on different criteria, and share our top-rated pillows for neck pain based on customer and owner experiences.

 

What Causes Neck Pain?

According to the Mayo Clinic, neck pain usually occurs due to one or more of the following five causes:

  • Strained muscles: Muscles become strained due to overuse. Many people strain their neck muscles by sitting at work desks all day. Other causes may include reading in bed or teeth grinding, as well as awkward sleeping positions.
  • Worn joints: Neck joints tend to deteriorate with age, and many adults — particularly the elderly — develop neck pain due to wear. The condition known as osteoarthritis can exacerbate this problem by wearing down the the cartilage between vertebrae, which causes bone spurs to form.
  • Compressed nerves: Neck pain may develop when nerves are unable to fully extend due to spinal problems, such as herniated disks or bone spurs.
  • Injuries: Any bodily injury can lead to neck pain, but the problem is especially common in automobile accident survivors who develop whiplash when their heads suddenly jerk back or forward.
  • Diseases: Diseases like cancer or spinal meningitis can lead to chronic neck pain.

Common symptoms of chronic neck pain include:

  • Pain or strain that develops when the head is upright for prolonged periods of time; examples include working at a desk or driving
  • Muscle strain or spasms
  • Reduced range-of-motion around the head and neck
  • Persistent headaches

Most neck pains don’t require medical attention, but the Mayo Clinic encourages people to see a physician if the following symptoms occur:

  • Severe or persistent pain
  • Pain that migrates to the arms, legs, or other areas of the body
  • Pain that is concurrent with headaches, numbness, tingling, or body weakness
 

Why Pillow Choice Is Important for Neck Pain

A recent article from Harvard Medical School notes that two sleeping positions appear to be the best options for people with neck pain: side- and back-sleeping. People with neck pain who sleep in either (or both) of these positions are urged to take the following precautions:

  • For those who sleep on their back, a dual pillow system is recommended. A rounded pillow should support the neck, while a flatter pillow can provide cushioning for the head. This can be accomplished by tucking the smaller, rounded pillow into the pillowcase of the flatter pillow, or using a specialized pillow that has elevated neck support and an indentation to support the head.
  • For those who sleep on their side, spinal support is important since this position can cause the spine to become misaligned. A pillow that is elevated under the neck and lower beneath the head typically works best.
  • Feather pillows are a good option for people with neck pain because they conform closely to the shape of the neck and head. However, they tend to flatten out over time and may need to be replaced regularly — once a year, in some cases.
  • Memory foam pillows are also suitable for sleepers with neck pain for the same reason: they conform to the neck and head for a contouring feel.
  • People with neck pain should avoid using pillows that are too high and/or too stiff. They can cause neck muscles to become strained and lead to stiffness the next day.
  • Traveling by plane, bus, or other forms of public transportation can lead to neck pain because, in many cases, people are forced to sleep in a sitting position. Horseshoe-shaped travel pillows can help mitigate these aches and strains by supporting the neck and preventing the sleeper from falling forward in their seat.
  • Stomach-sleeping is linked to neck and back problems because it causes the back to arch. People who sleep on their stomach also turn their necks to the side, which can lead to muscle strain. Although it can be difficult to transition to a new sleep position, people with neck pain who sleep on their stomachs should try sleeping on their side or back instead.

Ultimately, pillow choice can have a significant impact on neck pain. The next section will look at three key factors to keep in mind when selecting a new pillow: size, shape, and loft.

 

Understanding Pillow Size, Shape, and Loft

Pillows come in six standard sizes, as well as a ‘Small’ size normally reserved for orthopedic memory foam pillows with elevated neck support. The table below lists the size names and standard width and length dimensions, as well as the corresponding pillowcase sizes. As a general rule, pillowcases should be one to two inches wider and two to four inches longer than the pillow.

Pillow SizeAverage PriceDimensionsPillow Case Size and DimensionsNotes
SmallVaries20W” x 12L”Specialty sizesThis is the size for most cervical (curved) memory foam pillows, which are shorter than standard, flat pillows (see below)
Standard$20W” x 26L”Standard (20-21W” x 30-32″L)This is the most common pillow size, as well as the most compact
Super Standard$20W” x 28L”Standard (20-21W” x 30-32″L)This size is slightly longer than the Standard, but will fit into the same pillowcase sizes
Queen$$20W” x 30L”Standard (20-21W” x 30-32″L)
Queen (20-22W” x 30-34L”)
This size is a good option for people who toss and turn, since there is extra length
King$$$20W” x 36L”King (20-21W” x 36-41″L)This size may be suitable for people who toss and turn, as well as those who sit up to read in bed
Euro$$26W” x 26L”
24W” x 24L”
22W” x 22L”
20W” x 20L”
18W” x 18L”
16W” x 16L”
Euro (dimensions vary)The square shape makes them suitable as headrests or backrests
Body Pillow$$$54W” x 20L”
48W” x 20L”
Body pillow (dimensions vary)Suitable for side-sleepers who like to snuggle with a pillow while sleeping, as well as pregnant women

In addition to size, pillow shape is another important consideration. For sleepers with neck pain, the following two pillow shapes tend to be best:

  • Even surface: This is considered the standard shape for pillows, but people with neck pain may not receive enough support from even-surface designs. However, even-surface pillows filled with feathers or shredded memory foam contour to the sleepers head and neck for a more supportive, comfortable feel. Pillows with interlocking polyester fill also tend to retain a fuller shape despite their even surface. See next section for more information.
  • Curved surface: Also known as cervical or orthopedic pillows, curved pillows are usually made from memory foam. The area supporting the neck is elevated while the area for the head is recessed. However, some people report more support and comfort when the pillow is placed upside down.

The bottom line: sleepers with neck pain should choose a pillow shape that is most comfortable for them. However, they tend to experience the most pain relief from pillows that are either made from contouring materials or shaped to provide elevated neck support.

Next, let’s discuss pillow loft, or thickness. Although specific loft measurements vary from model to model, there are three general loft categories:

  • Low-loft: Pillows that measure less than three inches thick.
  • Medium-loft: Pillows that measure three to five inches thick.
  • High-loft: Pillows that measure more than five inches thick.

Loft is directly linked to how supportive and comfortable a pillow feels, as well as the likelihood of developing neck pain. There are several variables that people should consider when choosing the best pillow loft for them. These factors include sleep position, pillow position, and mattress type, as well as the sleeper’s body weight, head size, and shoulder width.

Sleep position: The right loft depends on whether someone sleeps on their back, side, or stomach.

  • Back-sleepers usually prefer medium-loft pillows because they provide a good compromise of softness and thickness.
  • Side-sleepers may require medium- or high-loft pillows to compensate for the extra space between their head/neck and the pillow.
  • Stomach-sleepers typically feel most comfortable on low-loft pillows, though some choose not to use a pillow at all. Again, this position is not recommended for sleepers with neck pain.

Pillow position: People who sleep with a pillow completely under their head tend to prefer low- to medium-loft pillows because there is not much space. Those who sleep with a pillow partially beneath their head may require a medium- or high-loft pillow.

Mattress type: Low-loft pillows will generally work for mattresses that sink deeply below the sleeper’s body, such as memory foam and latex models, because there is less space between the head/neck and the sleep surface. Sleepers who use less responsive mattresses, such as innersprings and hybrids, may prefer to use medium- or high-loft pillows to compensate for the extra space.

Sleeper weight: Those who weigh more than 230 pounds often sink deeply into their mattress regardless of the material composition. As a result, they may prefer the feel of a low- or medium-loft pillow. Lighter individuals (230 pounds or less) do not sink as deeply, and may need a medium- or high-loft pillow to fill the gaps.

Sleeper head size: As is to be expected, people with larger and heavier heads often feel more supported on high-loft pillows that compensate for sinkage, whereas people with smaller, lighter heads may find that low- or medium-loft pillows are sufficient.

Sleeper shoulder width: Wide shoulder spans increase the space between the sleeper’s head/neck and their pillow, and often require higher-loft pillows. People with narrower shoulders may find that low- or medium-loft pillows provide enough support.

For sleepers with neck pain, a pillow with adjustable loft may be the best option. These pillows allow owners to remove or add fill as needed to decrease or increase loft. These models can be particularly beneficial for people who experience intermittent neck pain or prefer to switch sleep positions on a regular basis. Some pillow types have adjustable loft by design. We’ll discuss different pillow materials in the next section.

 

Common Pillow Materials

Next, let’s look at common pillow material types and explore which ones are most and least suitable for sleepers with neck pain. The table below lists information for the seven most common pillow materials. To learn more about each type, click the link to our review pages in the far-left column.

Pillow MaterialConstructionProsConsNeck Pain Rating
BuckwheatPillows are filled with five to 10 lbs. of buckwheat hulls (or outer shells)Above-average support
Adjustable loft
Sleep cool

 

High price
Too firm for some
Noise potential
Heavy and difficult to move
Good
Buckwheat pillows provide good support for most, but excessive firmness may be an issue for some sleepers
DownPillows are filled with the soft interior plumage of ducks or geese (found beneath outer feathers)Adjustable loft
Lightweight and soft
Sleep fairly cool
Long lifespan
Short break-in
High price
Lose shape easily
Frequent fluffing required
Allergy and odor potential
Fair
Down pillows may be too soft to provide enough support to those with neck pain, and most models are low-loft
Down AlternativePillows are filled with polyester fibers that mimic the softness and weight of downAdjustable loft
Lightweight and soft
Low price
Short break-in
No allergy risk
Short lifespan
Lose shape easily
Frequent fluffing required
Poor
Because they deteriorate quickly and lose shape easily, down alternative pillows can worsen neck pain symptoms
FeatherPillows are filled with outer feathers of ducks or geese Close conforming
Adjustable loft
Lightweight and soft
Long lifespan
High cost
Quills may poke through cover
Frequent fluffing required
Odor potential
Very Good
Feather pillows conform closely to the sleeper’s head and neck, and most have adjustable loft
LatexPillows are filled with solid latex, a natural substance extracted from the sap of rubber treesClose conforming
Good support
Long lifespan
No fluffing required
Sleep cool
No noise
Non-adjustable loft
High cost
Too dense and heavy for some
Odor potential
Good
Latex pillows can alleviate pain and pressure in the neck but the loft cannot be adjusted, which may be limiting for some
Memory FoamPillows are filled with shredded or solid pieces of viscoelastic polyfoam, a substance that becomes softer when it comes into contact with body heatClose conforming
Adjustable loft if shredded
No noise
High cost
Odor potential
Very Good
Memory foam pillows conform closely and alleviate neck pain more effectively than most pillow types, and cervical pillows are usually made from this material
PolyesterMaterials are filled with shredded or interlocking fibers of polyester, a synthetic fabric designed to mimic the softness of cottonLow cost
No allergy risk
No odor potential
Short lifespan
Lose shape/flatten easily
Noise potential
Fair
Interlocking fiber pillows are better for people with neck pain because they do not flatten as easily, but shredded polyester pillows can exacerbate neck pain symptoms

As the table indicates, feather and memory foam pillows tend to be the best options for sleepers with neck pain. Latex and buckwheat pillows may also be suitable, though high price-points and mixed sleeper experiences have earned these pillows slightly lower ratings. We do not recommend that people with neck plain use a down, down alternative, or polyester pillow.

Additionally, pillows with interior water chambers have become a popular pillow choice for people with neck pain. The water chambers can be filled or drained to achieve different lofts, and their malleable surface helps the pillow conform more closely. Most pillows with water chambers also feature padding made from polyester or foam to provide extra cushioning.

 

Best Pillows for Neck Pain: Brands and Models

Now, let’s look at the best pillows for neck pain according to the people who use them. The following five pillows are currently available for sale, and have received the highest Tuck customer satisfaction ratings. To purchase these pillows, click the links in the second-to-last row of the table.

BrandCoop Home GoodsMediflowMyPillowNest BeddingTempur-PedicWonderSleep
ModelEdenThe Water Pillow (Gel Memory Foam)MyPillow PremiumEasy Breather PillowTEMPUR-Neck PillowShredded Memory Foam Pillow
Cost (est.)$70 to $90$69$80 to $90$99 to $129$67 to $97$70 (2-pack)
Available SizesStandard
Queen
King
StandardStandard/Queen
King
Standard
Queen
King
Small
Medium
Large
Queen
Suface ShapeEvenEvenEvenEvenCervicalEven
LoftAdjustableAdjustableLow
Medium
High
AdjustableLow
Medium
Adjustable
MaterialShredded memory foamConvoluted gel memory foam
Inner water chamber
Interlocking polyesterShredded memory foamSolid memory foamShredded memory foam
Trial Period100 nights30 nights60 nightsLifetime
Fees apply after 100 nights
None (no returns accepted)None
Warranty5 years3 years10 yearsLifetime5 years1 year
AvailableAmazonAmazonMyPillowNest BeddingTempur-PedicAmazon
Tuck Customer Satisfaction Rating78% (585 customer reviews)87% (289 customer reviews)85% (4,962 customer reviews)90% (517 customer reviews)74% (894 customer reviews)92% (977 customer reviews)
   
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