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.
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.
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.
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.
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.