Let's talk pillows. Are you using the right one?

Self Care, Neck, Back


Woman shopping for a pillow

“I can’t sleep without my pillow.” Is that your mantra when you pack for a trip? Do you pack an extra bag to carry your pillows?

If you do, you’re not alone.

But, is there a perfect pillow?

There is a pillow that is right for you. But, your pillow may not work for another person. The pillow you need depends on the way you sleep and your unique physiology.

Man in blue pajamas sleeping in different positionsSince you spend nearly a third of your life in your bed, your mattress and pillows need to support your spine from your hips to your head. We've put together some general guidelines you can use to choose the right pillow for the best sleep experience.

Your pillow needs to support: 

  • your head
  • the curve of your neck
  • and your shoulders

The correct pillow keeps your spine aligned in the proper position. A correctly aligned spine impacts the quality of your sleep and reduces pain throughout your day.

A great mattress with a bad pillow equals sleep quality similar to a cheap mattress.

Your pillow needs to provide support based on the way you sleep.

The type of pillow you need depends on your preferred sleeping position.

Everyone sleeps differently. Some people sleep on their side with legs curled in the fetal position. Other people sleep on their backs with their hands folded over their chests. Still, others sleep on their stomachs. No matter which position feels best to you, choosing the pillow with the right amount of support is essential.

A pillow that is too firm or too soft for the way you sleep leads to awkward positioning of your head, neck, and shoulders. To avoid discomfort, choose a pillow with the level of firmness that maintains the natural curvature of your spine as you sleep.

Illustration of neck position when sleeping on your backBack sleepers. People who sleep on their backs need a flatter pillow or a soft pillow that conforms to the neck and head. A thick or firm pillow adds too much bulk and bends or flexes the neck too much. Over flexion creates muscle strain and neck pain.

Back sleepers may also need a pillow with more density to place under their knees to offer support to their low backs.

Side sleepers. People who sleep on their sides may need a thicker pillow to support their neck and keep it in a straight line with the rest of the spine. Some people prefer a softer pillow that can be rolled under the neck to offer support.

Side sleeping neck alignment illustrationSide sleepers may also want to consider a body pillow or a pillow to place between their knees. A knee pillow supports the hips and keeps them aligned.

Stomach sleepers. People who sleep on their stomachs need a pillow that is soft enough to offer comfort for their faces, but not too fluffy to curve the neck and back into an abnormal position.

What happens if I choose the wrong pillow?

If you sleep with a pillow that is too firm or too soft, it often leads to a restless night accompanied by a stiff neck, or shoulder pain. People who sleep with the wrong pillow may also experience numbness in their hands.

Wrong Sleeping Position IllustrationIf you experience those symptoms, try switching your pillow. Sometimes, investing in a different pillow resolves the pain and discomfort.

The best pillow allows the muscles in your neck and back to relax as you sleep.

Good Sleeping Position IllustrationIf you feel neck, back, or shoulder pain continues for two weeks or more after you’ve tried different pillows or different sleeping positions, you may have an underlying condition that requires medical attention.

Don't suffer with pain. Contact your primary care provider or Bone & Joint's orthopedic specialists for an appointment. They can help you find pain relief.


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