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Your Pillow Might Be Causing Your Neck Pain. Here's How to Find the Perfect Pillow

Don't rely on just your mattress for support. Follow these guidelines and find the right pillow for your specific sleeping style.

Molly Price Former Editor
4 min read
Pillows on a bed
Josh Miller/CNET

In addition to a good mattress and comfortable sheets, you need a few other things to get a good night's sleep. Things like climate control, lighting and mental distractions all play a role in the quality of your rest.

You also shouldn't underestimate the power of a good pillow, or a bad pillow for that matter. Your pillow can be the difference between quality rest or a night of tossing and turning. That's why it's important to find one that properly fits your sleeping position, body type and specific preferences. Here's what to consider when shopping for your next pillow.

Find a pillow to suit your sleeper type

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Good sleep posture means aligning your body with good support. The head, neck, spine, hips, even knees and ankles should be  supported and aligned so you don't wake up with aches and pains.

The first step to picking the right pillow is identifying which position you sleep in most often. How you sleep informs what level of support your body needs in a pillow.


If you sleep on your stomach most of the time, try a very thin pillow. Your neck should be in a neutral position and aligned with your spine. You shouldn't feel a kink in your neck, like when you sit in the front row of a movie theater. Since stomach sleeping puts a significant amount of stress on your lower back, the National Sleep Foundation suggests sleeping on your side instead with a body pillow for comfort.


If you're a side sleeper, invest in a firm pillow with an extra-wide gusset (the rectangular panels around the pillow that increase thickness). This added thickness helps fill in the distance between your shoulder and your ear, adding support for your head and neck. Pillows with a tall loft (height) help keep your neck and head supported, and in proper alignment with your spine. 

For better spine alignment, you could also try adding a pillow between your knees.


If you like to sleep on your back, consider a thinner pillow. Keeping the pillow on the thin side ensures your neck isn't tilted too far forward. You want your neck to have a "C" curve when you sleep on your back. If you're facing the wall in front of you, your pillow is too tall. If you're staring straight up at the ceiling, your pillow is too low. 

Try a pillow with an extra loft in the bottom third (that odd bump in modern memory foam pillows you've always wondered about). That bump supports your neck while allowing your head to rest in a normal alignment. Memory foam is a good bet here because it will mold to the shape of your neck and head.

Looking for even more support? Add a pillow beneath your knees to relieve lower back pressure.

Body Type

You should also keep your body type in mind when looking for a pillow. If you're small or more petite, an extra tall and firm pillow could throw of your spinal alignment, even if you're a side sleeper. Larger sleepers, on the other hand, typically need extra support and loft in their pillow to promote proper spinal alignment. 

Filler material

What your pillow is filled with can make a big difference, especially if you have allergies or are sensitive to certain materials.

If real feathers aren't an option for you, consider down alternatives. Most polyurethane or polyester fiber pillow are hypoallergenic and shouldn't irritate sensitive sleepers. The same goes for some buckwheat hull and memory-foam models. Be sure to check the packaging and remember that each filler feels different.

Don't be afraid to try it out in the store to get an idea of how soft, firm, lumpy or solid the pillow feels.

A woman with her head resting on a pillow

Orthopedic pillows offer structure and support. 



Do you sleep hot? Some pillows include cooling gel with memory foam or a breathable polyester to keep you comfortable.

If you're really serious about keeping a cool pillow, consider high performance pillows or pillowcases with moisture-wicking fabric. Like athletic clothing fabric, these are designed to keep away heat and moisture.

When to replace your pillow

Experts at the National Sleep Foundation recommend replacing your pillow every 18 months or so. Pillows can be packed with mold, dead skin cells and dust mites.

Totally grossed out? Try adding a pillow protector to extend the healthy life of your pillow. To determine if it's really time to get a new pillow, test it by folding it in half and seeing if it springs back to flat. If it doesn't, it's time to find a new place to rest your head.

While there are dozens of factors affecting how well you sleep, having a pillow that supports your preferences and sleep style goes a long way. With the right pillow and maybe even a smart display to sense your sleep, you'll be off to dreamland in no time.

The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.