Photo: Marcus McDonald
Whether you’re navigating post-injury neck pain, a scrolling-induced achy hunch, or something in between, supporting your neck while you sleep can make a huge difference in your quality of rest, not to mention how much neck pain you feel when you’re awake. Keith Cushner, a product expert at sleepfoundation.org, and his colleague Logan Foley, a sleep-science coach and the managing editor at sleepfoundation.org, agree that the right pillow is pivotal in this regard. “A person’s sleep setup can play a crucial role in pain recovery, specifically neck pain,” Cushner tells us.
Neck pain can strike whether you are a side sleeper, back sleeper, stomach sleeper, or a combination of all three. However, Dr. Rennes Toussaint-Keshinro, a chiropractor and mental-health coach, advises that people with neck pain should stick to their side and back as much as possible to ensure that their head, neck, and spine are supported in a neutral position. Dr. Thomas Schuler, chairman of the National Spine Health Foundation’s Medical and Scientific Board and founder of the Virginia Spine Institute echoed this suggestion, noting that there are three natural curves in the cervical, thoracic, and lumbar spines “which go in opposite directions to balance each other.” These curves can decrease in size due to age, poor posture, or injury, “making it all the more important that they are supported while sleeping,” and the right pillow can help with that.
We talked to Cusher, Foley, Toussaint-Keshinro, Schuler, and four more experts, plus a lifetime back sleeper who finally found a pillow that eases her consistent neck aches, to determine the best pillows for people who are managing neck pain.
Supportive pillows, which the experts we spoke to agree are the best option for people with neck pain, tend to be on the firmer end of the pillow spectrum. According to Dr. Schuler, “Those with neck or back pain will find that medium-firm mattresses and pillows provide the best support at night.” Medium-firm pillows cradle your head and help your body stay in a neutral position and alignment while you sleep. However, Foley explains that “the right pillow firmness for you will depend on how heavy your head is, how high the pillow is, what position you tend to sleep in, and the firmness of your mattress.” The type of fill your pillow has will also affect the firmness level. Memory foam, latex, and wool tend to create a firmer sleeping surface while down, feather-fill, polyfill, kapok, and cotton materials are softer and more plush.
If you prefer a softer place to lay your head, Jaspal R. Singh, M.D., a triple-board-certified physician specializing in physical medicine and rehabilitation, sports medicine, and pain medicine, says the fluffiness of down pillows will allow you to squish and stack them to get the height you need to achieve that all-important neutral spine, no matter your favorite sleeping position. Dr. Singh advises that if you’re a down pillow enthusiast, you might need “two or three pillows so you can manipulate the loftiness.”
The loft, or height, of your pillow is a critical factor in managing neck pain. According to Dr. Schuler, “the neck shouldn’t be elevated higher than the rest of your spine” which means avoiding pillows that are overly lofty (typically higher than five inches) to ensure that your head isn’t forced into a painful angle. Dr. Toussaint suggests starting with a medium-loft pillow with a height between three and five inches. Finally, Foley says to be mindful of your body type: “The ideal loft for neck pain is one that aligns your neck with your spine,” he says. “It’s important to consider the width of your shoulders and the size of your head.”
Neck pillows come in various shapes and sizes ranging from standard rectangular ones to more specialized options that are designed to address neck pain in one way or another. Cervical pillows feature bolsters — or cylinder-shaped portions of the pillow — that nestle into the natural backward-C-shaped cervical curve of your neck to add support. Orthopedic pillows have a more detailed shape with several contours and cavities to support your cervical curve and align your spine with your neck and head. Orthopedic and cervical pillows can help you tackle specific pain points and alignment concerns while standard pillow shapes can offer you more level head support while you sleep.
Keeping your pillow clean is the main way to extend its lifespan. And depending on your pillow’s fill, that can mean tossing the entire pillow in the washer and dryer, spot-cleaning, or washing just the cover. We’ve included care instructions for each of the pillows below.
Fill type: Polyfill | Firmness: Firm | Loft: High or medium | Shape: Cervical | Care instructions: Hand wash and lay flat to dry
Cushner says the best pillow for neck and shoulder pain is “firm enough to hold the head at a healthy angle but soft enough to alleviate pressure points.” Ideal for back and side sleepers, this cervical pillow from Core Products has two different-sized bolsters on either side that offer more or less neck support, depending on your preference. If you’re a back sleeper, the valley in the middle cradles your head while the bolsters support your neck, keeping your upper body and spine in the right alignment. If you’re a side sleeper, you can lay your head on the pillow’s raised sides. Since this type of pillow shape can take some getting used to, the brand suggests that you acclimate to the smaller-diameter bolster first, even alternating between this pillow and your current pillow to start, and adjust from there. The pillow comes in three sizes to accommodate different body types.
Fill type: Memory foam | Firmness: Firm | Loft: High, medium, or low | Shape: Rectangular and sloped | Care instructions: Machine washable cover
Alanna McGinn, the founder and CEO of Good Night Sleep Site, likes memory foam because it is hypoallergenic and “provides support to individuals suffering from neck, upper-back pain, or degenerative conditions.” Contoured for ergonomic support, this Tempur-Pedic neck pillow has a firm memory-foam interior that conforms to the natural curvature of your head, neck, and shoulders. Similar to the Core Products pillow above, the Temper-Pedic Neck Pillow features two different-sized bolsters designed to nestle under your neck to provide varying levels of support. The major difference here is this pillow has a slight slope in the middle for your head to rest on instead of a deeper cutout. For side sleepers in particular, this may be a more comfortable option. Depending on your body type and overall preference, you can choose from three pillow profile sizes — small, medium, and large — with the large having the highest loft at 4.75 inches and the small having the lowest at three inches.
Fill type: Memory foam | Firmness: Firm | Loft: High | Shape: Cube | Care instructions: Machine washable cover
One of our favorite pillows for side sleepers, the Pillow Cube’s defining characteristic is its square shape, designed to maintain a 90-degree angle between your head and shoulders and relieve pressure on your neck. Made of structurally firm carbon-core memory foam that is naturally antimicrobial and designed to cradle your head while holding its shape, the Pillow Cube is encased in a machine-washable cover. You can choose from three sizes — standard, thin, or thick — depending on your height. The standard size is for people who are between five-foot-four and six-foot-three in height, the thin size is for people who are five-foot-three and shorter, and the thick size is for people who are six-foot-four and taller. I slept on the standard size (I am five-foot-ten) and found that despite feeling quite firm, the foam still conformed to my head shape for customized support. I sleep on my side most of the night, but if you tend to flip between your side and back, the cube has the potential to throw your neck out of whack in any other position than your side.
If you sleep exceptionally hot, for an extra $20, the brand also sells a cooling version of the pillow that it says will help you sleep up to ten degrees cooler.
Fill type: Gel-infused memory foam | Firmness: Medium-firm | Loft: Low | Shape: Rectangular | Care instructions: Machine washable cover
Thick, fluffy pillows can actually lift your neck out of alignment, exasperating further aches. Amanda Kruel, VP of Innovation Merchandising at Mattress Firm, recommends a lower-loft, medium-firm pillow for this reason. And Dr. Janet Kennedy, a clinical psychologist and the founder of NYC Sleep Doctor, explains that for back sleepers especially, neck support is essential “to minimize snoring and keep the airway open.” After Strategist senior editor (and back sleeper) Crystal Martin noticed that higher-loft pillows put strain and stress on her neck, she switched to the super-slim Blue Wave pillow. “I like that it’s still supportive even though it’s thin. I sleep with it turned vertical, so it’s underneath my shoulder blades and it supports my neck enough, so it’s not dipping too far back,” she says. Available in three lofts — super-slim (3.25 inches), ultra-slim (2.75 inches), and hyper-slim (2.25 inches), the brand suggests the ultra- and hyper-slim pillows for stomach sleepers and people who sleep with their arm under their pillow, and the super-slim for back sleepers (the brand also notes that all three pillows are too thin for side sleepers). The interior of the pillow is a single slab of gel-infused perforated memory foam with a medium-firm density. Like most memory foam pillows, the pillow itself is not machine washable, but the cover can be washed with the rest of your laundry.
Fill type: Memory foam | Firmness: Firm | Loft: Medium-high | Shape: Cylindrical | Care instructions: Machine washable cover
While you can use this cylindrical bolster pillow on its own, Dr. Singh suggests pairing it with a standard bed pillow to avoid stressing the rest of your upper body: “The problem with cervical neck rolls is that only the neck is supported; the head isn’t, the upper back isn’t. And you really need to support all these structures because you’re going to toss and turn throughout the night,” he explains.
The machine-washable cover is soft and cozy, while the sturdy memory-foam interior is firm and responsive. To create a combination pillow setup, you can slide the bolster pillow into the space between the base of your head and your shoulders while placing an adjustable-loft pillow underneath your head. Alternatively, you can use the bolster pillow between your knees for extra spine support.
Fill type: Kapok fiber and shredded memory foam | Firmness: Adjustable | Loft: Adjustable | Shape: Rectangular | Care instructions: Machine washable cover
Derived from the pods of the kapok tree, kapok fiber is a fluffier, airier alternative to wool or cotton. The Layla Kapok pillow combines kapok with shredded memory foam for a plush yet supportive feel. The standout feature of this pillow is its adjustability — you can increase or decrease the loft and firmness by adding or removing fill. “Buying pillows with adjustable lofts is a good call if you’re not sure which one will work best for you,” says Cusher.
Fill type: Copper-infused gel memory foam | Firmness: Adjustable | Loft: Adjustable | Shape: Curved | Care instructions: Machine washable cover
If you’re a side sleeper or back sleeper who needs extra neck support and shoulder pressure relief, a curved pillow like this one by Scrumptious can help you achieve pain-free alignment. Filled with copper-infused gel memory foam, the pillow naturally pulls heat away from your body so you don’t overheat while you sleep. The pillow can be adjusted by removing or adding filling for more customized support.
Fill type: Chopped memory-foam and microfiber | Firmness: Adjustable | Loft: Adjustable | Shape: Rectangular | Care instructions: Spot clean
Filled with a proprietary blend of chopped memory foam and down-alternative microfiber, the Marlow pillow has two compression zippers on either side and when they are unzipped, the pillow expands vertically, adjusting the loft without the hassle of adding or removing any filling. When I first started sleeping on this pillow, the zippers made it especially simple to adjust to the right loft for my height. I’ve now had it for a year and I almost exclusively use it with one side zipped and the other unzipped for a middle-of-the-road loft and firmness, which works for my tendency to roll from my side to my back. The chopped memory foam gives the pillow a supportive feel while the microfiber adds a pleasant softness. Since our experts recommend a firmer pillow for neck support, experimenting with the zipper configuration can help you figure out the best firmness-and-loft combination that works best for your body size and sleep position.
Fill type: Charcoal-infused, perforated molded latex | Firmness: Medium-firm | Loft: High | Shape: Rectangular | Care instructions: Machine washable cover
According to JD Velilla, the head of sleep experience for Serta Simmons Bedding, most people are combination sleepers who don’t remain in on position all night. Made with organic, sustainably sourced latex, this slab-style pillow by Avocado has a consistently flat surface (kind of like a sheet cake), so no matter which way you turn or lie down, the support is the same. It comes in three sizes: standard, queen, and king.
This is a firm pillow with little to no give — the latex has a bouncy responsiveness, but your head won’t really sink in. It also has a fairly high loft of about five inches tall and is intended for back and side sleepers, though it may be a bit lofty for people with smaller frames or narrow shoulders. When I slept on it myself, I felt like my head was propped up by the pillow instead of cradled. That worked well for my height since I’m five-foot-ten, and would be ideal for anyone who needs consistent firm neck support.
Fill type: Molded foam | Firmness: Very firm | Loft: Medium | Shape: Cervical | Care instructions: Machine washable cover
If you have severe neck pain, talking to a doctor about your treatment options is the best first step. But if you suspect your pillows and sleeping position are partly to blame, a corrective pillow like this highly structured one might help. It is designed to align your neck, support your thoracic spine, relieve jaw pain, and comfort your head. There are four sizes to choose from — average, petite, large, and extra-large — and the optimal sizing is determined by the horizontal measurement from the base of your neck to the tip of your shoulder. This pillow is also made by Core Products, maker of our top pick, and the brand warns that your neck pain may actually increase as you acclimate to the Therapeutica pillow’s rigid shape. However, over time, it can help reduce stiffness. As you use the pillow, the firm molded foam will soften a bit while maintaining its supportive structure.
Fill type: Hyperelastic polymer and perforated latex | Firmness: Medium | Loft: Low, medium, or high loft | Shape: Rectangular | Care instructions: Machine washable cover
Waking up in a pool of sweat is equal parts gross and annoying, so the Purple Harmony pillow encourages airflow by layering a mesh cover and the brand’s signature gel grid material over a ventilated latex core. The pillow is available in three loft heights: low, medium, and high — the lowest loft is best for people with a smaller frame, the medium loft is ideal for side and combination sleepers with a medium-to-large frame, and the highest loft works well for people with large frames who are combination and side sleepers.
I slept on the medium-loft height and found it to be far softer than the Avocado molded latex pillow, making it a good bet for people who prefer a softer, squishier pillow but still require solid head and neck support. The inner latex slab offers more support than a shredded latex pillow would while the honeycomb grid adds springy responsiveness. Unlike other soft or plush pillows that lose their shape and need re-fluffing, the grid moved with my head as I shifted position and gently bounced back into shape. The grid, perforated latex, and moisture-wicking cover also helped me sleep cooler overall.
Fill type: Water and poly-fiber | Firmness: Adjustable | Loft: Adjustable | Shape: Rectangular | Care instructions: Machine washable cover
Sleeping on a sack of water might not sound like the most appealing way to doze off, but water pillows can be excellent for neck support. Additionally, McGinn says there isn’t any sloshing around at all, and “since the water pillow has some weight to it, it will stay put to keep head and neck from moving.” Acting like fluid memory foam, the water consistently conforms to the shape of your head, helping to lessen any neck stress caused by tossing and turning. If you’re a bit intimidated by the functionality of a water pillow, this one by Mediflow is pretty straightforward. The pillow is made with an adjustable water pouch that is covered in a soft poly-fiber filling. For a firmer pillow, which is best for neck pain, you can fill up the pouch with more water. Using less water will give you a softer, flatter pillow.
• Keith Cushner, product expert at sleepfoundation.org
• Logan Foley, sleep-science coach and the managing editor at sleepfoundation.org
• Dr. Janet Kennedy, clinical psychologist and founder of NYC Sleep Doctor
• Amanda Kruel, VP of Innovation Merchandising at Mattress Firm
• Alanna McGinn, founder and CEO of Good Night Sleep Site
• Dr. Thomas Schuler, chairman of the National Spine Health Foundation’s Medical and Scientific Board and founder of Virginia Spine Institute
• Jaspal R. Singh, M.D., physician specializing in physical medicine and rehabilitation, sports medicine, and pain medicine
• Dr. Rennes Toussaint-Keshinro, chiropractor and mental-health coach
• JD Velilla, head of sleep experience for Serta Simmons Bedding
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