A pillow for neck pain promotes proper alignment of the upper spine. The goal of such a pillow is to relieve pressure on the muscles and vertebrae of the neck.
Pillows for neck pain are available in different sizes and shapes to accommodate different people and the various ways they sleep.
We put dozens of these pillows to the test and determined that the following are the best pillows for neck pain of 2021.
1. Xtreme Comforts Memory Foam Pillow
This is as close as you’ll find to a standard pillow on this list. But any resemblance is mostly cosmetic. Below the surface, the Xtreme Comforts pillow is a supportive, responsive way to alleviate neck pain.
What we like: It does an excellent job aligning the spine. We like the firm but forgiving shredded memory foam. It also resists bacteria, and support is outstanding from edge to edge.
Flaws: It’s allegedly machine washable, but we wouldn’t risk it. Also, it’s not going to do much for stomach sleepers.
2. Mediflow Water Pillow
The Mediflow Water Pillow does an outstanding job providing neck support. It’s the most versatile pillow on our list, and the only one you can introduce heat to (via warm water) if your aching neck muscles need it.
What we like: There’s nothing like having near complete control over the firmness of your pillow. And that’s what you get with a water pillow. It’s a reasonable option for back, side, and stomach sleepers.
Flaws: There’s always a chance you may not close the valve completely and it might leak.
3. Marnur Cervical Pillow
The Marnur and Epabo pillows have more than a passing resemblance to one another. But the Marnur is for larger individuals. The extra padding is perfect for side sleepers with broad shoulders and back sleepers with big frames.
What we like: We like the way the pillow cradles the head. We like that it allows you to switch from back to side without compromising comfort. And we like that the case is machine washable.
Flaws: Either you lay the way the shape demands, or you’re going to have a tough time.
4. The Purple Pillow
If you can get beyond the marketing you will find this pillow has your best interests at heart. It’s comfortable, resists microbes, is skin-friendly, and always returns to its original shape.
What we like: We like the sandwich-style construction. The structure encourages airflow that helps keep you cool. And if you don’t need so much neck support, you can flip it over for a softer touch.
Flaws: It is relatively expensive.
5. Belly Sleep Gel Infused Memory Foam Pillow
If you are a stomach sleeper, you might want to consider the Belly Sleep Gel Infused Memory Foam Pillow. It’s the flattest pillow on our list. But it provides effective support and control for stomach sleepers of all ages.
What we like: The polyurethane foam is firm but forgiving, and the case resists bacteria and odors while staying cool. We also like that it’s machine washable.
Flaws: Only a tiny portion of people sleep on their stomach, so the pillow doesn’t have widespread appeal. Also, you can’t really flip it over because of the shape.
6. Epabo Contour Memory Foam Pillow
The Contour has a simple look that belies its pain-relieving ability. If you sleep on your back or side, you’ll find it both comfortable and effective. Stomach sleepers may may be tempted to give it a whirl, but it’s too thick for them.
What we like: If you are a back or side sleeper, the Epabo Contour will provide outstanding support. We like that it’s comfortable in almost any position, and that it keeps your head nice and cool.
Flaws: Despite what the marketing says, this is not an option for stomach sleepers.
7. Nature’s Guest Adjustable Cervical Pillow
We were underwhelmed by the look of this pillow but were sold after a few minutes of actual use. If you’re someone who tends to move a lot while you sleep, this is a good choice.
What we like: We love that you can adjust the level of firmness. We like that you can shift around without the pillow losing effectiveness. And we like the way the cover feels against the skin.
Flaws: We’re not crazy about the valley in the center. It’s also kind of expensive.
8. Hullo Buckwheat Pillow
This buckwheat-filled pillow does a good job providing the support needed to help reduce neck pain. If you are environmentally-oriented and experiencing neck pain, here’s an eco-friendly way to deal with it.
What we like: We appreciate the environmentally-friendly buckwheat filler. The pillow does a decent job staying cool during the night. And it doesn’t attract or harbor microbes.
Flaws: The support is not as robust as you’ll find with less environmentally friendly fillers.
9. J-Pillow Travel Pillow
Just because you have a trip coming up doesn’t mean you have to accept neck pain while you’re on the road or in the air. The J-Pillow Travel Pillow keeps your neck aligned regardless of where you wind up sleeping.
What we like: We like that it provides head, neck, and chin support. We like the agreeable cover. And the stuff sack makes bringing it along a practical option.
Flaws: If we had to nitpick, we might say that it tends to slip off the shoulder from time to time.
10. SleepRight Splintek Memory Foam Pillow
The Spintek from SleepRight provides outstanding neck support, whether you sleep on your back or your side. The memory foam slowly molds itself to your head and, as it does, you can feel the stiffness and pain slip away.
What we like: We love the support the memory foam provides. We like that it works for both back sleepers and side sleepers. We also like the hypoallergenic cover, and that it stays cool.
Flaws: The pillow is expensive. But it’s also effective and durable.
Who Needs a Pillow for Neck Pain?
Many people suffer neck pain that interferes with their ability to get a good night’s sleep. Some of them have arthritis. Others hurt their back playing sports or working out at the gym. Whatever the cause of the back pain, however, the salient point is that it interferes with their ability to get all-important sleep so they can be their best. Anyone who experiences pain or stiffness in their upper back, shoulders, or neck when they lay down can benefit from one of the pillows on the above list.
How We Ranked
There are a lot of things to consider when buying a pillow to deal with neck pain. The first thing is the amount of loft it provides. People who typically sleep on their back need a fair amount of loft. It helps keep their airways open and encourages proper breathing and spine alignment. So some of the pillows on our list cater to back sleepers.
The type and amount of fill is also important. Some pillows allow you to adjust the amount of fill. That can be helpful if the pain in your neck or upper back varies in intensity from day to day, as is sometimes the case with muscle pulls. Being able to adjust the loft and thereby adjust the position of your head can be very helpful. In addition, some people respond better to one type of fill than another. So we made sure to include pillows with a variety of different fill materials.
We also looked for pillows specifically designed to provide cervical support. Cervical support is particularly important for those whose back pain is the result of poor posture (1). The cervical support pillow will help train the spine to assume proper alignment. That, in turn, will help alleviate pain associated with slouching while you walk or sit. Finally, we want pillows that are well-made and durable and don’t require professional intervention to get them clean.
Pillows for neck pain can help reduce snoring. Snoring is the result of tissues in the airway interfering with one another and blocking airflow (2). When this happens that passing air causes the tissues to vibrate, which creates the sound we hear as snoring. Some of the pillows on our list (such as the Marnur Cervical Pillow and the Mediflow Water Pillow) will help reduce snoring by raising your head and allowing for the free flow of air.
Pillows for neck pain can reduce stress. That’s because a lack of proper sleep has been shown to actually increase the level of stress people feel (3). The exact mechanism by which sleep deprivation increases stress levels is not yet fully understood. But there is sufficient evidence to conclude there is a definite link. If you have neck pain, one of the best ways to get a good night’s sleep is to use one of the above-profiled pillows. So pillow-up and chill out.
Pillows for neck pain can prevent pain before it starts. The old saying “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” is entirely appropriate when it comes to pillows for neck pain. The best way to fix a problem, after all, is to prevent it from happening in the first place. In this case, the same pillows that will alleviate your neck pain will enable you to sleep in a way that prevents future occurrences of pain. And if you’ve never experienced neck pain and you use one of these pillows, there’s an excellent chance you never will.
Pillows for neck pain can also help relieve arthritis pain. People who suffer from arthritis – particularly rheumatoid arthritis (RA) – often have a tough time getting to sleep. As if dealing with RA isn’t tough enough, not being able to sleep properly just makes the situation that much worse (4). Most of the pillows on this list will help alleviate arthritis aches and pains so the sufferer can get a good night’s sleep.
Pillows for neck pain help older folks sleep better. Older people often have trouble getting to sleep (5). Sometimes it’s because of arthritis pain. Sometimes it’s related to a lack of physical activity or medications they’re taking or simple stress. And sometimes the insomnia is the result of an uncomfortable mattress, blankets that aren’t warm enough or poor quality pillows. The pillows on the above list, beyond their ability to help alleviate pain, are some of the best thought out, best-made pillows on the market and can help anyone sleep better, neck pain or not.
Pillows for neck pain often hold up longer than standard pillows. As we just mentioned, pillows for neck pain are typically some of the best-made pillows you’ll find, period. That not only means they’ll help you sleep better, it also means they’re likely going to last longer than any standard feather pillow you can buy. Where a standard pillow will likely become flat and basically worthless in a couple of years, a good pillow for neck pain should last several times that long.
Pillows for neck pain can help prevent painkiller addiction. Rather than trying a pillow for their neck pain, some people reach instead for painkillers. What often follows are months or even years of escalating painkiller use. In some cases, that use morphs into addiction, and then the person has two problems: the neck pain, and the addiction to painkillers. No one sets out to become addicted to painkillers. But it happens. Using the right pillow to address your neck pain can help prevent you from starting down a very slippery slope.
Pillows for neck pain provide spinal support. And spinal support while you sleep is incredibly important to your overall health (6). This is especially true if you suffer from back problems or some type of spine disorder such as spinal stenosis (7). Not getting enough sleep will only serve to aggravate whatever spine-related back problem a person is having. That, in turn, makes sleeping difficulties even worse and sets off a spiral of dysfunction that becomes increasingly difficult to stop.
Pillows for neck pain can help improve your memory. It’s true. During the day, our brain is busy soaking up information and experiences. Some of these it can process immediately. Things that may be more mentally or emotionally taxing, however, are usually processed by the brain as we sleep. Sometimes by way of dreams (8) that help us sort things out and consolidate our memories. A lack of sleep can interfere with this process. Important information and feelings never get properly resolved and linger in our subconscious, interfering with our real-time short term memory. A good pillow for back pain that enables you to get a good night’s sleep will help keep your mind clear and enhance memory.
Pillows for neck pain can save you money on medical bills. Doctor visits aren’t getting any cheaper. And many times the cost of the office visit isn’t covered by insurance. That goes double for Medicare which, at best, typically only covers part of the cost of an office visit (9). By buying and using the right pillow, you can alleviate your neck pain and fend off the need to keep spending money on expensive trips to the doctor.
Pillows for neck pain allow you to be more comfortable. This is, after all, the bottom line when it comes to pillows. If the pillow you use to reduce neck pain is not comfortable and does not make you more comfortable while you’re trying to sleep, then it’s not doing its job. In which case, you should start looking immediately for another. Because, as we’ve seen, proper sleep is essential to physical, mental, and emotional health.
Q: What causes neck pain?
A: There are a lot of things that might be the source of a person’s neck pain. Sometimes a strenuous workout can lead to a strained muscle in the neck, shoulder, or upper back. Sometimes years of wear and tear can cause compression of the spine (10), a painful condition that requires extensive treatment. Auto accidents are another common cause of neck pain. Many people suffer whiplash (11) that can take months to get over and which can severely impact the ability to get a good night’s sleep. Arthritis, of course, is another common cause of neck pain (12) and another common cause of fitful sleep. Other chronic diseases can also lead to intense neck pain and result in sleepless nights. Spinal meningitis (13) is one such disease.
Q: What are some common symptoms of neck pain?
A: People tend to think neck pain is neck pain. But there are numerous ways neck pain may manifest. In cases of chronic neck pain symptoms may include spasms in the various muscles of the neck. Some people will experience reduced range-of-motion in the neck and shoulders. For other people, neck pain causes persistent, painful headaches. Still others may feel the pain come on slowly over the course of the day until it eventually engulfs most of the neck.
Q: I use the right kind of pillow. Why does my neck still hurt?
A: Unfortunately, it is possible to sleep in the optimal position, on the best mattress money can buy and use a pillow specifically made to address your type of neck issue, and still suffer neck pain while you sleep. How can that be? Because the neck does not exist in a vacuum. There are things you may do or even consume during the day that follow you to bed at night. These can affect the amount of pain you experience. For instance, if you have neck pain but engage in vigorous exercise that may elevate pain levels to a point a pillow cannot address. Also, drinking too much alcohol and subjecting yourself to too much stress can amplify the pain you’re experiencing.
Q: What is the best way to sleep if you have neck pain?
A: Most doctors believe that sleeping on your back is best for alleviating back pain. If you have the right pillow, of course. Lying on your back allows your spine to assume it’s natural shape and takes the pressure off individual joints. However, it is believed that less than 10% of people sleep on their backs (14). The overwhelming majority sleep on their side. But while side-sleeping is not considered best for back pain, the right pillow can make a pain free night of sleep is still possible. Stomach sleeping is the worst position for alleviating back pain. But some people are not able to sleep any other way. Fortunately, there are pillows available that can help them too.
Q: Why does sleeping sitting up cause neck pain?
A: Sleeping sitting up causes neck pain because the head is heavy. Much heavier than most people think it is. In fact, an average head can weigh as much as 15 pounds. When you sleep, your muscles relax. That goes for the muscles in your neck as well. With your neck muscles no longer actively engaged in supporting your head, those 15 pounds are pulled down by gravity. When this happens, they compress the neck vertebrae into one another. Things get even worse when your head falls to one side or the other. All kinds of unnatural stress and strain is brought to bear on your neck vertebrae, as well as the muscles and connective tissues in the neck. The result: a sore, stiff neck when you wake up.
Q: What type of pillow should a side sleeper use?
A: As we just mentioned, most people sleep on their side. Pillow designers are well aware of this and do their utmost to design pillows that will enable side sleepers to obtain relief from their neck pain. If you’re a side sleeper with neck pain, you’ll want to pay particular attention to how thick the pillow is. It’s ‘loft’ in other words. Also, the fill material is important. You want something that is firm but not hard. And you want the pillow to promote the natural alignment of your spine. Several of the pillows on our list will do a good job allowing side sleepers to achieve that alignment even if they frequently move during the night.
Q: What are pillows for neck pain made from?
A: The pillows on our list represent the state of the pillow maker’s art and are fashioned from an array of leading-edge materials. These materials include memory foam, down, latex foam, polyester, microbeads, buckwheat (15) and various water-based materials. Most are not only comfortable and durable; they’re also hypoallergenic, resistant to dust mites and other microscopic life forms, as well as being easy to clean. One of the main reasons this type of pillow is often considerably more expensive than standard pillow is because of the high-end materials.
Q: Should I use a firm or soft pillow for neck pain?
A: This is one of the most common questions people with neck pain ask and it’s an important one. Because the firmness of your pillow will determine if it is effective in alleviating your particular type of neck pain. As a general rule, soft pillows are of little use when it comes to providing proper support. Most people need something relatively firm to hold the neck still while they sleep. Whether they sleep on their back, side, or stomach. In rare instances, a small individual may benefit to some limited degree by using a moderate to soft pillow. But they would be the exception. And the only reason they might get away with it is because they’re head is smaller and lighter and won’t compress the pillow too much.
Q: Will these pillows help with arthritis neck pain?
A: There are several pillows on our list that will help to alleviate arthritis neck pain. The right pillow for this particular job has to be a good match for the person’s natural sleep position. That’s because most folks with arthritis are a bit older. And trying to teach someone who’s slept on their side their whole life to sleep on their back isn’t going to work. So the pillow has to dovetail with their natural tendencies. For instance, if the person is a side sleeper, the pillow should promote a nice straight spine from the upper back to the base of the skull. It should not tilt the head up or down.
Q: Could my broad shoulders be causing my neck pain when I sleep?
A: It may be that your broad shoulders are contributing to your neck pain. If you have wide shoulders and you sleep on your side, your pillow needs to have additional loft. Otherwise, it will not provide the type of support your head needs while you sleep. So, if you have broad shoulders, and you are using a relatively flat pillow, that may be the source of your neck pain. Try a loftier pillow and see if that alleviates the problem.
Q: Is it healthy to sleep with a pillow under your shoulders?
A: No. You’d be hard-pressed to find any health professional that thinks it’s a good idea to sleep with the pillow under your shoulders. Placing it (the pillow) in such a way is going to exacerbate any spinal curvature and intensify, rather than alleviate, any neck pain. If you are not experiencing neck pain, there’s a good chance that sleeping with the pillow under your shoulders will create it sooner or later. That is mostly an issue for people who sleep on their back. But it’s not wise for anyone to sleep with the pillow extending down under their shoulders.
Q: Are water pillows a waste of time?
A: Not at all. The notion that they might be springs from the early days of the waterbed craze some 50 years ago (16). At that time, mattress manufacturers felt threatened by the new type of bed and spread the word that they were bad for your back. They’re not. But the myth persists and likely had a hand in the decline of waterbed sales in the past 20 years. When it comes to water pillows, they provide almost unlimited adjustment possibilities. Add more water to firm them up, drain water to ease up on the tension. You can even add warm water to provide some additional muscle relaxation.
Q: Is it better to sleep without a pillow?
A: It’s rarely a good idea to sleep without a pillow unless you’ve been doing it your whole life. About the only people with neck pain who might benefit from ditching the pillow are those who sleep on their stomach (17). That’s because if you put a pillow under your head while lying on your stomach, it can twist your next backward in a very awkward way that will more than likely aggravate whatever it is that is causing your neck pain.
Q: Can’t I just take painkillers for my neck pain?
A: You can, but painkillers are unlikely to provide long term relief. There are two reasons for this. First of all, your body will build up a type of immunity to the painkillers over time. That means you will need to take more and more to obtain the same degree of relief. The other reason is that painkillers do not address the underlying cause of neck pain. All they do is mask it for a short time. But once the effect wears off, the pain returns because the real problem has not been addressed. A pillow for neck pain will address the type of support and alignment issues that are causing the pain in the first place.
Q: How long will it take for the right pillow to cure my neck pain?
A: First, there is no guarantee that even the best pillow will completely alleviate your neck pain. In some cases, it will. In other cases, it may reduce the pain and become one part of an effective overall treatment. And, in a few cases, it may do nothing to relieve the pain. But even nothing, in this case, is something. Because it means the pillow you were using was not the cause of your pain. By eliminating your pillow as the cause of your pain, your doctor can narrow the search for the true cause.
Q: How do I wash a pillow for neck pain?
A: The pillows on our list all come with their own care instructions, including specific recommendations about how to clean them. It is wise to follow these instructions to the letter to prevent damage to the fill that could undermine the pillow’s effectiveness. Most pillows should be kept out of water. But if the maker of your pillow says it’s okay, remember that it must be allowed to dry completely before being used again. We can’t emphasize this enough: don’t be in a hurry to put the pillow back in service. Give it whatever time it needs to dry through and through. And unless it says you can submerge it, don’t.
Neck pain can stem from any number of sources. But whatever the cause, the end result is almost always the same: difficulty sleeping. One of the most effective ways of dealing with neck pain is to pick up a pillow specifically designed to help alleviate it. These pillows help align the neck properly while you sleep. By doing so, they relieve pressure on the spine.
All of the pillows on our list are well-designed, well-built and will provide effective relief from neck pain. Exactly which one is right for you will depend on the source of your pain. If you have any questions regarding which type of pillow will help relieve your neck pain, talk it over with your doctor.
For cpoe.org’s #1 recommended pillow for neck pain, click here.