Neck pain affects about two-thirds of the population at some point in their lives—and if you wake up with neck pain, the culprit might be your pillow. The right pillow should relieve pressure in your neck and back, preventing pain. A pillow that’s too thick, too thin, too firm, or too soft may instead aggravate muscle tension, causing pain.
The best pillows for neck pain feature a balance of support and comfort, alleviating discomfort. Try switching out your current pillow with a new one, and if the pain continues, see your doctor immediately.
Our Recommendation: Zoma Pillow
Every Zoma Pillow offers 6 inches of adaptive support for the sleeper. Because it features an adjustable loft, a Zoma Pillow can provide the right neck support no matter your sleeping position.
Hundreds of MicroCushions™ fill a Zoma Pillow. The MicroCushion™ filling is CertiPUR-US® certified, which means it’s made without ozone depleters, flame retardants, and other toxic materials.
Air flows easily through the MicroCushions™, and the air wicks away heat and moisture. The shredded fill is not only breathable but machine washable, and we recommend tossing the pillow in your washer every six months to a year. Washing your pillow extends its lifespan by eliminating allergens and debris—our pillow requires relatively little care, as the fill naturally resists bacteria and dust mites.
A Zoma Pillow is $75 for a queen size. The pillow comes with a 100-night risk-free trial, free returns, and a 10-year warranty.
Why Does Neck Pain Happen?
Sometimes there’s no clear cause for neck pain because the neck bones, tendons, and nerves are grouped together so tightly it’s difficult to find the exact source. Common causes include:
- Weak or tired neck muscles, often from sitting in awkward positions or tilting your neck back for a long time.
- Wear and tear due to age.
- A slipped disc or a narrowing of the vertebral canal can put pressure on a nerve root, leading to neck pain.
- If someone drives into the back of your car, it can give you whiplash.
If symptoms continue for more than three months, the condition is categorized as chronic neck pain—often, psychological stress is a factor behind chronic neck pain.
Neck pain typically improves on its own with a few minor life changes. See your doctor if the pain continues unabated for several days, if it’s the result of a severe accident, or if you experience the following symptoms in conjunction with the neck pain:
- Loss of bladder or bowel control
- Headaches with nausea, vomiting, dizziness, or light sensitivity
- Unexplained weight loss, fever, and chills
- Signs of paralysis, such as difficulty moving limbs
- Difficulty keeping your balance when you walk
Best Pillow Types for Neck Pain
There are lots more pillow options available besides the standard pillow for neck pain. If you experience chronic neck pain, look at specialty cervical support pillows that evenly balance the weight of your head and neck.
A standard pillow is your normal bed pillow. Typically, a standard pillow is 20 inches by 26 inches, with a super standard offering an extra 2 inches.
A standard pillow can cause neck pain if it leaves parts of the neck unsupported. You might need to try a different thickness or a different type of pillow altogether.
A contour pillow, sometimes also known as a cervical pillow, has two raised ends on opposite sides to support your neck—with one end higher than the other, you can pick which side is more comfortable. Your head rests in the curve between the sides.
Many contour pillows are solid memory foam pillows. Memory foam gives the pillow a responsive feel—the downside is that contour memory foam pillows have a relatively shorter lifespan compared to pillows with shredded fills.
These small U-shaped pillows wrap around the neck for head and neck support. Travelers often use them on long plane trips or bus rides to prevent their heads from tilting to the side, but these pillows can also alleviate neck pain at home or work. Take care that the pillow isn’t too thick, however, because that will push your head too far forward.
Neck pain is not uncommon when pregnant. A body-size U-shaped pillow offers support to a pregnant woman’s stomach, back, and neck.
To use a pregnancy pillow, rest your head on the curve of the “U,” while tucking one leg of the U between the legs for proper hip alignment.
A wedge pillow is a triangular pillow that elevates the upper body when placed at the head of the bed. Sleeping on a wedge pillow can ease pressure in the neck, while also alleviating symptoms of acid reflux, snoring, and obstructive sleep apnea.
Common Pillow Fills
The material inside the pillow determines its price, feel, and durability. There is no one pillow fill that’s best for neck pain, as each type has its advantages and disadvantages—the best pillow fill comes down to personal preference.
A down pillow is plush, lightweight, and breathable. The malleable fill is made from the soft plumage from under a duck’s and geese’s front feathers.
The price of a down pillow ranges from $50 to $180, with the average down pillow costing close to $100. Cheaper down pillows tend to contain less down. A down pillow needs frequent fluffing to maintain its shape. Bits of down may fall out as the pillow ages, but the pillow should last several years.
A down alternative pillow contains polyester fibers to imitate the feel of down, providing a hypoallergenic option for those with a feather allergy. The fill is less expensive than genuine down, and a pillow often costs around or under $25.
Like genuine down, a down alternative pillow needs an occasional fluffing to retain its shape. Down alternative pillows tend to last two to three years with regular use.
Feather pillows are a budget alternative to down pillows—the fill is mostly feather quills mixed with a few down clumps for softness. Like down, a feather pillow molds well to the head and neck, although feather quills may poke through the cover and disturb comfort.
On average, a feather pillow costs between $30 to $40 and may last around three years with regular fluffing.
Memory foam responds to heat and weight, which is why a memory foam pillow conforms to your head and neck for pressure relief. According to Sleep Like The Dead, eighteen percent of owners said their memory foam pillows reduced neck pain.
There are two types of memory foam pillows—solid and shredded. Shredded memory foam is often more cooling as air flows better between the pieces, and shredded memory foam tends to last a year or two more than a solid piece, since you can fluff and wash it. A one-piece memory foam pillow provides more consistent support while requiring little maintenance.
Both types of pillows cost, on average, between $40 to $50.
Latex is similar to memory foam—the material molds itself to your head and neck, relieving pressure and providing support. Its dense structure resists allergens and dust mites, although that same density can make the pillow heavy and hard to move. A latex pillow is durable, lasting at least three years with regular use.
A buckwheat pillow tends to feature excellent support. The fill contains small, hard buckwheat hulls, which resist flattening as you lie down, better maintaining your spinal alignment. The fill is also adjustable, as you can add or remove hulls; however, the shells tend to make noise when compressed, and they naturally feel firm.
An average buckwheat pillow costs around $75.
A water pillow is highly adjustable; you fill it with water until the pillow is at your preferred loft and firmness. Finding your favorite thickness and feel might take some experimentation, and filling the pillow can be a messy task. Once you fill the pillow, it should weigh quite a few pounds, leaving you with a pillow that stays in place.
Loft refers to a pillow’s height or thickness, and there are three—low, medium, high. Each loft works best with a different sleeping position, and a common reason for neck pain is sleeping on a pillow with the wrong loft. If your pillow is too thick, it raises your head and neck out of alignment; but if it’s too low, your head slumps and your neck strains without sufficient support.
A comfortable pillow for side sleepers should have a high loft (between 4 to 6 inches) since this position creates the greatest distance between the neck and sleeping surface. A back sleeper needs a pillow with a medium loft that’s 3 to 5 inches thick. A stomach sleeper should look for a pillow thinner than 3 inches, or may even benefit from skipping the pillow altogether.
Your sleeping position can also increase your chances of waking up with neck pain. Side sleeping and back sleeping maintain neutral spine alignment, but stomach sleeping often causes neck pain because you have to twist your neck to the side to breathe while you sleep.
Taking Care of Your Pillow
Once you have the right pillow, caring for it extends its use.
The first step to protect your new pillow is by encasing it in a pillow protector. Protectors prevent allergens and pests from penetrating the pillow, extending its lifespan.
Pillows with adjustable fills (down, feather, shredded foam) need fluffing every morning to maintain their shape. To fluff your pillow, hold both ends and push inward.
Wash your pillowcase and pillow cover every week with your other bedding. Washing it in a hot water cycle is the best way to eliminate any dust mites or bacteria.
If your pillow is machine washable, wash it every six months or so. If your pillow smells after a wash—which can happen with down and feather pillows—freshen it up with a few hours in the sun.
You can clean nonwashable pillows with a vacuum hose, spot cleaning, and a sprinkling of baking soda. Try to vacuum your pillows once a week, when you change your bedding.
Sleep Trial, Warranty, Return Policy
Before you purchase a pillow, check for a sleep trial, warranty, or return policy. Many pillows do not come with a sleep trial, but you should always buy a pillow that includes a good warranty and return policy—if a pillow lacks either of these, it’s a red flag that the company isn’t willing to back its product.
Not every pillow comes with a sleep trial, although they are fairly common with online pillows. If you’re investing a significant amount of money in your pillow, such as more than $50, we recommend looking for one with a sleep trial. Your sleep trial might be as short as 45 days or stretch to 120 days.
A warranty guarantees that the company will repair or replace a defective pillow. Manufacturing defects commonly covered include tears or cracks in the material or damage to the cover that falls outside of normal wear and tear.
The length of a pillow warranty can vary. Some warranties are as short as a year; others cover a lifetime of use. Most pillows need replacing every three to seven years, so a good warranty should cover five or more years.
A return policy outlines how long you have to make a return and the condition your pillow must be in to be eligible for return. Some companies will only take a pillow back if it’s been damaged in shipping or it’s unopened.
If you have any questions about the return policy, reach out to a customer service representative. We strongly advise looking for return policies that give you at least 30 days to try out and then return the pillow if needed.
Sleep on the Right Mattress
A mattress may be indirectly responsible for neck pain if it’s too firm. A firm mattress keeps the body lifted, maximizing the distance between the neck and the bed. The best mattresses conform to a sleeper’s body and minimize the gap between the neck and bed.
Getting Better Sleep
Not getting enough sleep can cause or worsen pain. If you’re getting less than 7 hours of sleep per night, you might need to take steps to fix your sleep schedule.
The first step is to wake up and fall asleep at roughly the same time every day. Sleeping in on weekends throws off your biological clock.
Establish a bedtime ritual, such as a hot bath or reading a chapter in a book. Avoid electronics for at least an hour before bed, as the bright blue light can delay sleepiness.
Keep your room between 60 to 75 degrees Fahrenheit and sleep with cool, breathable bedding—avoid synthetic fabrics such as polyester and rayon. For your pillow, you might want a cotton or bamboo cover.
Other Ways to Relieve Neck Pain
It may take more than even the perfect pillow to eliminate your neck pain. Speak with your doctor if neck pain continues or if it interferes with your daily life.
Changes to your working environment can leave your nights pain free. Try adjusting the height and back of your chair and the distance between your chair and keyboard for better posture. Change the height of your computer monitor and use an ergonomic keyboard, mousepad, and computer mouse.
Move about when you can, as movement increases blood flow throughout your body. You might fear physical activity will make the pain worse, but the opposite is true. Exercises designed to strengthen your neck can prevent and relieve neck pain.
If you have a stiff neck at home, try applying heat or ice to it. You can use a medical ice pack or just fill a bag with ice and wrap it in cloth to protect your skin—apply it to the skin for no more than 20 minutes. For heat, you can use hot compresses, heating pads, or just take a hot shower. Do not fall asleep with a heating pad or an ice pack, as they can damage the skin if left on for too long. We strongly advise side sleepers and back sleepers to keep a pillow under their heads. Stomach sleepers may sleep better without a pillow but still risk neck pain because of how they twist their neck to breathe. Sleeping in a room between 60 to 75 degrees can promote better sleep. Experiment with your thermostat to find what is best for you—if you wake up too hot or too cold, adjust the temperature by a couple of degrees. Breathable bedding can cut down on heat retention, such as a cotton cover for your pillow. Conversely, stomach sleeping is the least healthy sleep position. If you’re a stomach sleeper who frequently wakes up with neck pain, consider switching to another position.
Frequently Asked Questions
We strongly advise side sleepers and back sleepers to keep a pillow under their heads. Stomach sleepers may sleep better without a pillow but still risk neck pain because of how they twist their neck to breathe.
Sleeping in a room between 60 to 75 degrees can promote better sleep. Experiment with your thermostat to find what is best for you—if you wake up too hot or too cold, adjust the temperature by a couple of degrees. Breathable bedding can cut down on heat retention, such as a cotton cover for your pillow.
Conversely, stomach sleeping is the least healthy sleep position. If you’re a stomach sleeper who frequently wakes up with neck pain, consider switching to another position.
Did We Help?
Your current pillow might be responsible for your morning neck pain, particularly if it’s old and worn out. A new pillow designed to support your neck can lead to a good night’s sleep. If your discomfort continues, make an appointment with your doctor, as the pain might be a sign of a serious medical condition.
This article is for informational purposes and should not replace advice from your doctor or other medical professional.