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Can soft pillows cause neck pain?

By Amelia Willson | 3 Minute Read

When it comes to sleep, you think you’re doing everything right. You’ve got your bedroom temperature set to a cool mid-60s degrees Fahrenheit. You’ve got a comfortable, high-quality mattress that’s in great shape. And you’ve got a rock solid bedtime routine.

But you’re still waking up with aches and pains, especially in your neck. What gives?

If you’re sleeping on your side, the problem could be with your pillow.

Can soft pillows cause neck pain?

It’s important to note that soft pillows in and of themselves do not cause neck pain. In fact, thin, soft pillows are recommended for stomach sleepers. The problem is when you pair a too-soft pillow with the wrong sleep position, particularly the side-sleeping position.

When you sleep on your side without a pillow, nothing is holding your neck up. As a result, your neck leans or tilts downward, wrenching it out of alignment with the rest of your spine and causing pain upon waking up. If you have a very soft pillow and sleep on your side, you might as well be sleeping without pillow at all. The weight of your head sinks deeply into the pillow, causing the pillow’s filler materials to move to the side to make room for your head.

Side sleepers often suffer from neck pain when they use a soft pillow, but they’re not the only ones at risk from using the wrong pillow. Regardless of your sleep position, if you use the wrong pillow, you can experience neck pain.

What’s the best pillow and sleep position for neck pain?

Fortunately, the solution for pillow-induced neck pain is easy. All you need to do is pair the right pillow with your sleeping position.

  • Side sleepers require a pillow that’s firm enough to support the head and neck’s alignment with the spine, while still comfortable enough to fall asleep on. Good options include firm or extra firm pillows made of memory foam or natural latex foam that provide sufficient give and sink in response to the weight and pressure of your head. Alternately, an orthopedic or contour pillow with a depression for the head area and extra padding under the neck can provide proper support.
  • Back sleepers also require a firm pillow that keeps their neck straight with their spine. Contour loft pillows with divots for the neck and head are a recommended option.
  • Combination sleepers that transition between the side and back should choose pillows with a dent in the middle.
  • Stomach sleepers need a thin, soft pillow. However, even with the right pillow, stomach sleepers may still (and often do) experience neck pain because they’re moving their head to the side and out of alignment with the spine.

Regardless of the pillow you choose, you’ll want to measure the height to ensure it’s a good fit for you. Measure the length from your neck to your shoulder, and then find a pillow that matches that height. Most people sleep best with a pillow 4 to 6 inches thick.

Neck pain sufferers should take special care to avoid pillows with feather, down, or buckwheat fillers. Unless you can adjust the amount of filler in the pillow, these fillers easily move so the pillow ends up providing support that’s unreliable at best.

Need help choosing the best pillow? Check out our pillow buying guide.

Should you stop sleeping on your side?

If you’re a side sleeper who suffers from neck pain, you may be wondering if it’s worth switching to another sleep position – but not so fast.

Side sleeping provides many benefits, and is widely considered one of the healthiest sleeping positions. Sleeping on your side keeps your spine aligned, prevents acid reflux, and supports fetal health for pregnant women. It’s also the sleep position most recommended by experts to reduce snoring.

That being said, if, after choosing a proper pillow, you still find yourself waking up with neck pain, it may be time to switch to your back. Back sleeping is another healthy sleep position, known for preventing facial wrinkles and acid reflux, while minimizing neck pain and keeping the spine aligned. However, it should be avoided by snorers or those with lower back pain.

The problem could also be with your mattress. If your mattress is too firm, you may be elevating your body too high above the mattress surface, causing your neck to tilt downward onto your pillow.  The best mattress for side sleepers is a soft to medium firm mattress that allows your pressure points (your shoulders and pelvic area) to sink deeply enough into the mattress so your spine lays flat. Memory foam mattresses are your best bet. Hybrid mattresses are a solid second option, and even a better option if you’re a side sleeper who tends to sleep hot.

What else can you do to reduce neck pain from sleeping? In your waking hours, minimize neck strain by exercising, staying hydrated, and maintaining good posture. Get an ergonomic desk chair, don’t hunch over your phone or computer, and use a headset for phone calls.

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