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Methodist Healthcare

How to find the right pillow

If you're waking up with back and neck pain, you may need a new pillow. Learn how to find the right pillow for your sleep position.

Tayla Holman
September 25, 2023
Man sleeping while using pillow
Sleeping on the right pillow can be a game-changer when it comes to a peaceful night of rest.

If you've ever woken up with a stiff neck or spent the night tossing and turning, your pillow might be to blame. People often underestimate the power of a good pillow and its role in promoting good sleep quality and general well-being.

Whether you sleep on your back, side or stomach, the right pillow can help improve your spinal health and alignment, and potentially reduce neck and back pain. You have several factors to consider, including size, firmness and more. Here's how to find the right pillow for you.

Start with your sleep position

When you look for a new pillow, you want to find one that matches your primary sleep position. That's the one you settle into when you get ready to go to sleep at night. However, the position you wake up in can also play a role in which pillow you need.

Side sleepers

According to Consumer Reports, more than half of people sleep on their side. When you sleep on your side, your head is raised farther off the mattress than in any other position. A firm or extra-firm pillow is the best choice for side sleepers because it keeps your head about 4 inches off the mattress, helping you maintain proper neck alignment.

Latex or memory foam pillows don't flatten as quickly as down or polyester pillows, so they're more likely to keep your head at the right angle while you sleep. If you prefer down, choose a firmer option that provides proper head and neck support.

Back sleepers

If you fall asleep on your back — also known as the supine position — you'll need a pillow that has enough loft to support the natural curve of your neck. Loft is the height of the pillow when it's compressed by the weight of your head. Your head won't be as far off the mattress as a side sleeper's, so you have a few options as far as firmness and material. You can choose a foam, latex, down or down alternative pillow, as long as it's not too firm because that could strain your neck.

If you have sleep apnea, it may worsen if you sleep on your back. To avoid that, you may want to use two or three firm pillows or a wedge pillow to elevate the top half of your body.

Wedge pillows can also help reduce acid reflux. The incline of the pillow lifts your upper body to keep acid down and prevent regurgitation.

Stomach sleepers

Your face is closest to the mattress when you sleep on your stomach, so choose a pillow with a low loft to avoid elevating your head and neck. If the loft is too high, it will push your neck out of alignment, which can cause neck pain. Your pillow should be thin and made of soft material, such as soft foam or latex. Down or down alternative pillows are also great choices for stomach sleepers.

Combination sleepers

Combination sleepers have slightly different needs than the other three. As a combination sleeper, you may fall asleep in one position but wake up in another. This can make it difficult to choose the right firmness, material and loft to keep you comfortable throughout the night. When choosing the right pillow, consider how you move (back to side, side to stomach or stomach to back) as well as how many times a night you move around. Look for an adjustable pillow that lets you add or remove stuffing or foam so you can customize it to your liking based on how you sleep.

Other considerations when choosing the right pillow for you

If you find yourself running hot at night, you might want to try a pillow with cooling technology. These pillows often have gel inserts or copper fibers that keep the pillow cool (no need to flip it over!) so you don't wake up in a pool of sweat.

Allergen-free pillows are also a good option if you have allergies or asthma. In this case, avoid pillows with feathers, latex or down filling. Allergen-free pillows often have an antimicrobial treatment that prevents the growth of bacteria, mold and mildew.

Sleeping on the pillow that's right for you can be a game-changer when it comes to a peaceful night of rest. That said, if you've bought a new pillow that meets all of your requirements but still wake up with pain, you might want to see an orthopedic specialist. In some cases, you may not need a referral from your primary care doctor, but check with your insurance provider to be sure. The specialist may be able to offer tips for finding the right pillow to meet your needs and give you the high-quality sleep you deserve.


September 25, 2023