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How to choose the best pillow for neck pain? Advice from a physio!

14 Apr, 2024
Jürgen Swinnen

What is a good pillow for neck pain?

Neck pain is unfortunately common, and many people also wake up with a sore or stiff neck. While sleeping, your pillow has a huge impact on neck pain. Are you experiencing neck pain? If so, changing pillows may reduce or eliminate symptoms.

For this blog, I had the opportunity to ask Tine Ravyts a few questions. She is a physical therapist and business manager of the Belgian Kinergiek in Pelt. Her education and experience make her a grateful source of professional knowledge on the subject.

Wise to change your pillow for neck pain?

Should you change your pillow for neck pain? If you suffer from long-term neck pain, changing your pillow is definitely worth a try. A relatively small investment in your health that can reduce or eliminate symptoms.

However, it is necessary to purchase the right pillow. In fact, which pillow you need varies greatly from one situation to another. Together with Tine’s input, we will explore which pillow is best for the neck pain you are experiencing.

best pillow for neck complaints

What is the best pillow for neck pain?

“That depends on what the neck pain is,” says Tine. “For the elderly, a thicker neck pillow is recommended, as the symptoms may come mainly from osteoarthritis or stenosis.”

“Also, the curvature, just below the neck and toward the shoulder blades, often becomes more prominent as you get older. Then, when you lie on your back, the head rests tilted back. So a thicker pillow will help bring the neck back into alignment with the mid-back.”

What is the best pillow for a neck hernia?

With a neck hernia, it is important that the neck not be bent forward. A herniated disc is actually a bulging of the intervertebral disc. When there is pressure on the cervical vertebrae, such as with a bent neck, you experience more discomfort, which can cause pain.

Which pillow is best for a neck hernia depends on your sleeping position. And keep in mind that you change sleeping positions during the night. To make your choice, it’s best to look at the sleeping position you assume when you fall asleep. We recognize the following sleep positions:

  • Side lying is usually the most comfortable. Find a pillow that supports the neck as well as possible, keeping the spine aligned as much as possible. If your neck is not properly supported, you will be able to experience radiating pain to the arm in the side position.
  • For supine positions, a thinner pillow is recommended. Again, the neck should be in one fluid line with the back. Your back makes a kind of S-curve, you want to pursue that natural posture. A thick pillow will cause the neck to bend too far, which can increase symptoms.
  • Abdominal lying is completely discouraged, as the neck is rotated too much. This causes the hernia to bulge even more and symptoms will increase faster. Do you always sleep on your stomach and see no other way? Then try a very low pillow. Your body often goes in search of an intermediate position when you sleep, causing you to end up in a half-side position.
sleeping with a sore neck

Sleeping with neck and back problems

Neck pain and back pain are often linked. They can also both be related to using the wrong pillow. Hence, I wanted to interview Tine Ravyts about using a pillow for back pain.

However, back pain can also be related to the firmness of the mattress. Therefore, it is also a good idea to read up on the pros and cons of a hard or soft mattress. Personally, I am convinced that it is best to consider the sleep system as a whole. If you expect everything from one item, such as the pillow, your expectations are often unrealistic. It is an interplay between base, mattress and pillow when you talk about anatomy, ergonomics and the biomechanics of your body.

What pillow can I use for back pain?

Depending on the back pain you experience, the right choice of pillow may be different. Again, your sleep position is a key to reducing possible symptoms, depending on the cause.

  1. With a herniated disc in the lower back, it is sometimes advisable to lie on your stomach with a thin pillow. The prone position can reduce hernia symptoms by lowering the bulge back.
  2. When supine, it is important that the pillow is not too thick. With a pillow that is too thick, the neck and back will be bent which can cause you to experience symptoms. If you have a back hernia, sleeping with an overly thick pillow in a supine position can worsen the pressure on the bulge.
  3. In side lying, it is important that the back is nicely aligned. If you look at the vertebra, you will see that it is positioned roughly in a straight line. It may help to put an extra pillow or a pregnancy pillow between your knees so that the back is not twisted too much.
how to best sleep with a stiff neck

What is the best way to sleep with a stiff neck?

Not everyone experiences neck pain by default, but rather sporadically. For example, you may experience a stiff neck after a long day in front of a computer screen or after a long car ride. Only after a night’s sleep do you often get real pain. That’s why I also asked Tine’s opinion on how best to sleep with a stiff neck. Her response is as follows:

With a stiff neck, Tine says it is crucial to properly support the neck. During sleep, your muscles relax, and the neck muscles should also be able to relax completely. The most ideal sleeping position for maximum relaxation is supine and preferably with an ergonomically shaped pillow.

Side lying is also possible if the neck is fully supported so that the muscles can relax. The prone position is definitely not good for a stiff neck, and will also cause neck pain.

Does an ergonomic pillow make sense for neck pain?

An ergonomic pillow can help solve neck pain in many cases. There are many different types of ergonomic pillows: there is something for every situation.

An ergonomic pillow is one that takes into account the differences between head and neck. This can be a shape cushion with a moon-shaped cutout that has a slight elevation, or a wavy shape that is a little thicker at the level of the neck. A neck support pillow is another variation. Here, the distinction between neck support and pillow is often made literally. The neck support is then visible separately from the pillow.

ergonomic pillow for neck pain

Conclusion

A pillow has a lot of impact on the neck pain you may experience. Which pillow to choose depends on your symptoms and situation. Symptoms may also decrease even when you change sleeping positions.

Thanks to Tine Ravyts of www.kinergiekpelt.be.

 

With a neck hernia, it is crucial that you have proper support while sleeping. A molded (orthopedic) pillow is therefore recommended. Pay close attention to the thickness you need based on your sleeping position.

Some people sleep better without a pillow. However, this is not always good for the neck. Especially when sleeping on your side, a pillow is really necessary for healthy posture.

Sleeping on your stomach is generally not good for your neck and back. This is because your cervical vertebrae (and partly the back vertebrae) are twisted and also stressed.