Which Pillow Is Best for Neck Pain? Try These 8 Expert-Recommend Picks
The wrong pillow can lead to neck pain and make sleep difficult. Check out these top picks for neck pain, from plush bamboo to gel.
Why does neck pain happen?
Neck pain is something that virtually all adults experience at some point in their lives. While there can be a variety of causes, a common culprit can be your sleeping arrangement.
There is a network of support in the neck including bones, nerves, joints, muscles, ligaments, and tendons, explains Soma Mandal, MD, a board-certified internist at Summit Medical Group in Berkeley Heights, New Jersey.
Neck pain can arise from a number of problems within these structures.
Causes of neck pain
Dr. Mandal shares some of the most common causes of neck pain:
Disc degenerative disease
Disc degenerative disease is a form of arthritis caused by aging, Dr. Mandal says.
It occurs when vertebral discs—the rubbery cushions in the spine—wear down over time, which is extremely common in adults after age 40.
With too much wear, you may experience pain and trouble moving; you may end up needing medication, physical therapy, or surgery to manage the pain.
Other types of arthritis
Your doctor can help you achieve a proper diagnosis and treatment approach if this is the case.
Your neck can get also become strained from sitting at the computer too long and having bad ergonomics, such as your chair sitting too low so you are scrunching up your neck muscles to type.
Luckily, you can take steps to improve these things, such as by opting for a more ergonomic workstation set-up, or by improving your diet and exercise level.
Narrowing of the spinal canal (cervical stenosis)
Cervical stenosis is a condition in which the spinal canal is too small for the spinal cord and nerve roots.
This condition causes compression of the spinal cord and is most frequently caused by disc degenerative disorder, which is related to aging, Dr. Mandal explains.
Neck pain can occur for many different reasons, though one of the most common reasons is a “neck strain” in which you injure the muscles of your neck, says Theresa Marko, a board-certified clinical specialist in orthopedic physical therapy in New York City.
“This can happen from carrying a heavy bag, lifting something heavy, having your arms overhead for a long time (think putting up curtains), turning your neck too fast, or just simply sleeping in a funny position or with your head turned too much or bent too much one way or another,” Marko explains.
(Learn the difference between a sprain vs. strain.)
Trauma to the neck
Neck trauma can cause tears to the muscle or injury to the vertebral cervical spine, Dr. Mandal says.
“Whiplash is an injury when the head is forced to move backward and/or forwards, beyond its normal range of motion,” she explains. “This can cause pain and stiffness in the neck.”
(Here are 7 signs you have a pulled muscle in your neck.)
Another issue for the cervical spine is a “pinched nerve” and this generally happens to people over 45 or so due to changes in the vertebrae, such as narrowing of the spaces—called foramina—where your nerves exit the spinal cord and come down to your arms.
“This is going to be related to degenerative changes in your spine,” Marko explains.
“However, it can also be caused due to overexertion and be in conjunction with muscle spasms which could be pulling on the vertebrae in different directions, which can cause a functional closing of the foramina (the hole where the nerve exits) and often when you decrease spasm, space opens up and the nerve feels better,” she says.
A pinched nerve also often arises because someone is weak in their shoulder (rotator cuff) and shoulder blade muscles.
When these muscles are weak, the neck overworks, and then those muscles get tight and can pull on the vertebrae, narrowing the foramina, Marko says.
(Here’s what to do if you have a pinched nerve in your neck.)
Spinal cord compression
Spinal cord compression is caused by any issue that leads to pressure on your spinal cord.
This can cause neck pain, but can also be accompanied by weakness in the shoulder, arm, hand, and tingling or numbness in the arm or hand, Dr. Mandal says.
While disc herniation, which is also an early sign of degeneration, is more common in the lower back, it can also occur in the cervical spine, located in the neck.
There are many factors that can cause a herniated disc, including poor ergonomics with things like talking on the phone, or computer use, Marko adds.
(Here’s how to tell if you have a herniated disc in your neck.)
Finding a good sleeping arrangement
According to Dr. Mandal, it is important to try for good sleep positions to avoid developing neck pain.
She recommends not sleeping on your stomach since this causes the back to arch and the neck is bent to the side.
As far as fixing your sleep environment, it may take a little trial and error to find the right fit for the contour of your head and neck, but a comfortable pillow is well worth the investment to protect your neck.
“Don’t go for a pillow that is too high or stiff,” she says. “You can also roll a towel in the center of a flat pillow or buy a special pillow that has this support in place, which can be ideal for people who sleep on their backs.”
Marko agrees that a poor sleeping setup can definitely contribute to neck pain.
What to look for in a neck pillow
“In general, I recommend that one keeps their neck in the midline, neutral—not tilted up or down,” Marko says. “When you are on your back, you want a pillow (such a down pillow because you can scrunch it up) that takes up space behind your neck; don’t leave it hollow there.”
“When you are on your side, you need the pillow to be thick enough to fill up space from your shoulder to your head so you keep your head in the midline: not tilted up or down,” she says.
“If you sleep on too flat of a pillow, your head will tilt down, and with too big of a pillow, your head will tilt up.”
Marko emphasizes that whatever feels comfortable to you is more important than the material it’s made of, however. She also doesn’t recommend sleeping on your stomach, but if you do, she advises opting for a flatter or soft down pillow.
“I find that using two down pillows is perfect for me because the bottom one provides support and the top one I can mold to fit in the nooks and crannies of my neck when I’m sleeping, no matter what position I am in,” Marko says.
“That’s not for everyone; some people like just one pillow. If that’s the case, then I might recommend a foam pillow or just a down pillow that is down medium support.”
Best pillows for neck pain
AllSett Bamboo Cervical Neck Roll Memory Foam Pillow
This plush, bamboo pillow is a great option for an ergonomic neck pillow. It’s also hypoallergenic which makes it a great option even for those with allergies.
“A rounded pillow like this one can support the natural curvature of the neck along with a flatter pillow for the head,” Dr. Mandal says.
A bonus: This comes in a two-pack so you can double up or gift this to someone with neck pain too.
(These are the best pillows for every type of sleeper.)
Zamat Contour Memory Foam Pillow
A memory foam pillow that conforms to the contour of your head and neck, as this one does, is another great option for neck pain, Dr. Mandal says.
This highly customizable pillow allows you to adjust the height with removable memory foam inserts that are about 0.8 inches thick to provide two loft levels.
This one comes with a breathable and washable pillowcase and is available in three sizes.
Bcozzy Chin Supporting Travel Pillow
If you are traveling by car, plane, or train, Dr. Mandal recommends using a U-shaped pillow like this one to support your head and neck while you sleep upright.
“This can prevent the head from bending to one side,” she explains.
The portable neck pillow has an attached snap strap that can be clipped to your bags or you can even hang it in the car.
It’s available in two sizes for adults, including a large for those with up to a 16-inch neck and extra-large for those with a 16-inch or more.
(Check out more travel neck pillows to prevent neck pain.)
Beckham Hotel Collection Bed Pillows
Marko recommends this plush, gel pillow as an alternative to down if you tend to not find down as comfortable as some.
These gel-filled fiber pillows are 100 percent cotton, available in queen and king size, come in a set of two and boast over 113,000 ratings on Amazon with 4.5/5 stars.
One reviewer writes, “Really nice pillow…not too soft or hard; it had just the right amount support for me (back, stomach, and side sleeper here).”
Charter Club Soft Density Down Pillow
This luxury pillow, exclusively available at Macy’s, is on the pricier side because it’s made of down.
Marko recommends it if you’re a stomach sleeper, possibly on top of a firmer pillow. It retains shape when you fluff it, according to one reviewer, and it molds to your head once you lay on it.
(Avoid these sleeping mistakes that cause insomnia.)
Dot&Dot Twist Memory Foam Pillow
This twistable memory foam pillow is a great option to use at home or while traveling, as you can use it lengthwise or twist it into the similar U-shape of traditional travel pillows.
Similar to other portable neck pillows, it includes a snap closure that can be clipped to your luggage, backpack, or secure on your car headrest.
It also consists of a washable cotton cover which makes it easier to clean and keep fresh.
Amerisleep Dual Comfort Pillow
This pillow provides pressure relief with dense memory foam and dual firmness on both sides: medium soft and medium firm. The foam also has small holes that allow for air circulation. This helps the pillow remain cool.
You can also choose either a 5-inch or 6-inch loft based on your preference for thickness and your sleep position. It’s ideal for side and back sleepers who like their pillows to form to the shape of their head and neck.
The pillow comes in standard/queen and king.
(Looking to meditate? Here are the best meditation pillows to try.)
Hotel Collection European White Goose Down Soft Density Pillow
Another splurge—it’s made of goose down. This is one of Marko’s recommendations for stomach sleepers, as it provides soft and full support.
The pillow is available in two sizes: standard and king.
Next, here’s your essential guide to deeper sleep.