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Is it better to sleep with or without a pillow?

20 Dec, 2023
Jürgen Swinnen

Maybe you’ve asked yourself this question when you’ve been struggling with your pillow all night long. The answer to whether it is better to sleep with or without a pillow depends on a number of factors, including your sleeping position, any back or neck pain and your personal preference.

In this article, we list the pros and cons of sleeping without a pillow.

Can I sleep without a pillow?

Sleeping without a pillow you can simply do without risking health problems. Maybe, through circumstances you had to sleep without one for a night? Or maybe you’re having trouble sleeping in your own bed because you were struggling with your pillow? Sleeping without a pillow is safe and can sometimes even reduce sleep problems.

4 benefits of sleeping without a pillow

You may be suffering from problems that you can solve by sleeping without a pillow. It can sometimes reduce or completely eliminate neck or back pain. Want to enjoy the benefits of sleeping without a pillow? Then try it overnight. The benefits are:

  1. Reduction of neck and back pain: Sleeping with your head on a pillow can cause your neck and back to lie in an unnatural position. This can lead to neck and back pain. Sleeping without a pillow can bring your neck and back into a natural position, which can help reduce neck and back pain.
  2. Fewer breathing problems: Snoring and sleep apnea may improve in some cases with no pillow because the airways are kept more open.
  3. Improved blood circulation: Sleeping without a pillow can improve blood circulation, especially around the neck and head. This can lead to improved skin, hair and brain health.
  4. Better for stomach sleepers: although sleeping on your stomach is generally labeled as “less healthy,” there are some people who spend their entire lives wanting nothing else. Because your neck is positioned quite oddly in relation to your torso, the neck muscles are really put to the test. A very low and thin pillow or no pillow at all is often much better then, because then your head will be a little more balanced relative to your spine when you sleep on your stomach.

During sleep, you are completely relaxed and a lot of tension also disappears from your neck muscles, among other things. Which causes your head to fall forward, sideways or backward, and that automatically creates more strain.

You may wake up with a stiff back, sore shoulders or irritated neck muscles. Do you prefer to sleep with a pillow? Then read,“Which pillow offers the best support?”

advantages of sleeping without a pillow

3 disadvantages of sleeping without a pillow

Of course, if sleeping without a pillow had only benefits, no one would sleep with a pillow anymore. If you are trying to sleep one night without a pillow, keep the following points in mind:

  1. Uncomfortable lying: Sleeping without a pillow can be uncomfortable, especially if you are used to sleeping with a pillow in side position. Your shoulder joints and neck may feel stiff after waking up.
  2. Sensitivity to pressure points: Sleeping without a pillow can lead to increased pressure on certain parts of the body, such as the face, shoulders, neck and arms. This may be sensitive or painful, and your fingers or arm may tingle.
  3. Not enough support: Because neck and shoulder areas are not extra supported, you may experience stiffness and pain when you wake up.

Pay attention to this when sleeping without a pillow

It is important to experiment first to see if sleeping without a pillow is right for you. Start by sleeping without a pillow for a few nights and see how you feel. If you get neck or back pain, or feel uncomfortable, stop sleeping without a pillow or take an intermediate step with a rolled up towel or a thinner pillow.

Are you convinced? Then it is important to adopt a good sleeping position to fall asleep. If you sleep on your back, make sure your head and neck remain in a neutral position.

If you sleep on your side, make sure your knees and hips are slightly bent and your shoulders are relaxed. If you can also adjust your lying comfort, choose a slightly more flexible mattress.

If you have back or neck pain, it is important to talk to your doctor before continuing to sleep without a pillow.

Tips for sleeping without a pillow

Not everyone is used to sleeping without a pillow. Therefore, you may also feel very out of your comfort zone, literally. So above all, listen carefully to your own body.

Here are some more tips if you decide to sleep without a pillow:

  • Start by sleeping without a pillow for a few nights and see how you feel.
  • Try a thin pillow or towel if uncomfortable.
  • If it remains uncomfortable, stop sleeping without a pillow.
  • If you get back or neck pain, stop sleeping without a pillow and talk to your doctor.
  • Make sure you have a good sleeping position.
disadvantages of sleeping without a pillow

Is it better to sleep with or without a pillow?

At Mindthebed, we think it’s important to keep you well informed. However, different sleep scientists around the world are not unanimous on whether it is good to sleep without a pillow. There are some studies* showing that sleeping without a pillow can help reduce neck and back pain.

A 2017 study published in the journal “Sleep Medicine” found that people who slept without a pillow had less neck pain than those who slept with a pillow. Another study, published in the Journal of Manipulative and Physiological Therapeutics, concluded that sleeping without a pillow can help improve neck posture.

However, other studies have found no significant benefits to sleeping without a pillow. A 2018 study published in the journal Sleep found no difference in neck pain between people who slept with a pillow and those who slept without one.

Another study published in the Journal of Orthopaedic & Sports Physical Therapy saw no difference in neck posture between people who slept with a pillow and those who slept without one.

So whether sleeping without a pillow actually benefits you depends entirely on your own situation. Therefore, it is also advisable to just give it a try, should you desire improvement in your sleep.

Types of pillows and their functions

Still stick to your pillow? It is important to choose the right pillow. This ensures that you sleep well and no long-term complaints arise. This simple table shows you which pillow is best for you. Keep in mind that the firmness of your mattress also has an impact. Harder mattresses leave less room for your shoulders, so you often choose a thicker pillow. So choose the firmness of your mattress wisely. Read more in this article,“which mattress firmness for which weight.” Often people who sleep too hard end up in a prone position during the night because there is not enough room for their shoulders and hips. That doesn’t make sense. When they match their mattress to their build and weight, that space often comes. And often these people then sleep just fine and without lower back pain on a softer mattress.

Sleep typeSuitable cushion
Side sleepermedium hard pillow, not too soft
Belly sleeperNo pillow or soft and thin pillow
Back sleeperSofter pillow, thin or medium thick.

Conclusion

Sleeping without a pillow is not harmful or bad for you. If you are considering sleeping without a pillow, it is important to first test whether it works for you. Sleeping without a pillow can prevent back and neck pain. Especially as a stomach sleeper, you have an advantage because neck is less stressed.

Is it better to sleep with or without a pillow: Most Frequently Asked Questions

What kind of pillow you need depends mainly on your sleeping position. Belly sleepers benefit from a thin pillow, or no pillow. Side sleepers generally need a thicker pillow than back sleepers.

A hard or soft pillow is determined in part by the firmness of your mattress. Softer mattresses often leave more room for your shoulders. Furthermore, hard or soft is mainly a personal choice. Belly sleepers and back sleepers generally experience more comfort with a soft pillow.

A quality pillow usually lasts a few years. You should replace your pillow if you no longer experience support, or if the pillow is no longer hygienic.

* The different studies listed for you:

Studies showing that sleeping without a pillow can help reduce neck and back pain:

  • Sleep Medicine (2017): “The Effect of Pillow Use on Neck Pain and Sleep Quality in Adults with Chronic Neck Pain”.
  • Journal of Manipulative and Physiological Therapeutics (2013): “The Effects of Pillow Use on Cervical Posture and Pain in Healthy Adults.”

Studies that found no significant benefits:

  • Sleep (2018): “The Effect of Pillow Use on Neck Pain in Adults.”
  • Journal of Orthopaedic & Sports Physical Therapy (2019): “The Effect of Pillow Use on Cervical Posture in Healthy Adults.”

Other sources:

  • National Sleep Foundation: “Sleeping Without a Pillow”
  • Sleep Health Foundation: “The Pillow Conundrum”
  • American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons: “The Right Pillow for You”