Like your mattress, the pillow you use is an essential component of your sleeping space. A good pillow is needed for proper head and neck support. If your pillow feels too soft or too firm, there’s a good chance you’ll wake up feeling sore or stiff. In a similar vein, sleeping without a pillow altogether can lead to soreness and impaired posture over time.
Pillows come in a wide array of shapes, sizes, and designs, and each model has defining features that make it optimal for certain sleepers. Before selecting a pillow, it’s important to learn about the differences between different pillow materials, as well as which types of pillows are most compatible with your sleep position and nightly needs.
We’ll cover key pillow details below to help you get started. Further down, check out the links to pages where we answer some of the most common questions people have about pillows.
Pain and Needs
Your pillow plays a major role in how much pain you feel after waking up in the morning. Certain pillow materials contour evenly around the head, neck, and shoulders to provide optimal support and reduce pain. Some pillows feature ergonomic shapes designed to alleviate aches and pressure points in certain areas of the body. Pillows flatten over time, resulting in a loss of support and a higher potential for pain.
Pillows for Neck Pain
Proper neck support is vital to waking up pain-free. Your neck should be properly aligned with the shoulders and spine. Pillows that feel too soft or too firm can interfere with this alignment and cause stiffness or soreness in the neck and its surrounding areas. If you experience neck pain, consider investing in an ergonomic pillow for neck pain that elevates the neck and cradles the head.
Pillows for Shoulder Pain
Supportive pillows that cushion the head and keep the neck evenly aligned with the spine can be beneficial to those with persistent shoulder pain. Some pillows on the market today are geared toward people with rotator cuff injuries, arthritis, and other conditions that often lead to nagging shoulder pain.
Pillows for Back Pain
Even though you might not sleep with a pillow beneath your back, uneven alignment around the neck and shoulders can cause pain to occur in the lumbar region and hips. Some people find lower back pain relief by sleeping on their sides with pillows tucked between their legs, or on their backs with pillows under their knees.
Pillows for Snoring
A pillow with insufficient thickness can exacerbate snoring, especially for people who sleep on their back. Pillows for snoring are crafted with high-loft dimensions in order to accommodate chronic snorers.
The material used for a pillow’s fill plays a major role in how supportive and adaptive it feels. Composition can also affect cooling, moldability, longevity, and ease of cleaning. Another factor is cost, as more expensive materials can significantly drive up a pillow’s price-point.
Memory Foam Pillows
If you enjoy deep cushioning and a hugging sensation from your pillow, then memory foam might be the material for you. Solid foam pillows are particularly adept at pain and pressure relief. You can also opt for a shredded memory foam pillow, many of which can be adjusted for loft by adding or removing the fill.
Latex is a good alternative for people who enjoy the contouring of memory foam but need more overall support. These pillows may also contain solid or shredded fill. Latex is a naturally responsive material, so you’ll feel more bounce from a latex pillow as opposed to the slow sinkage of foam.
Down from geese or ducks is an exceptionally soft and lightweight material. Most down pillows sink deeply beneath the head and neck. Some use feathers — which offer more support than down — to provide extra reinforcement and prevent excessive sinkage.
Down Alternative Pillows
Down alternative fibers are usually made from polyester and are designed to mimic the natural softness of real down without the expensive price-point. Some newer down alternative pillow models use natural materials like bamboo or kapok fibers instead.
A buckwheat pillow may be a good choice for anyone who finds other types of pillows too soft. The fill consists of firm and supportive buckwheat hulls, creating a feel that’s akin to a hard bean bag. Most buckwheat pillows can be adjusted for loft by adding or removing the hulls.
Cooling pillows are designed to resist overheating and wick moisture away from the head and neck. Cover fabrics often contribute to cooling. The best fabrics for cooling include organic cotton, silk, rayon derived from bamboo, and fabric blends infused with heat-dissipating phase change material.Shop the Best Pillows
Pillows for Sleep Positions
The sleep position you normally use is an important consideration when choosing a new pillow. Each position has unique needs. If you are a combination sleeper who switches between different positions, then a pillow with adjustable loft might be a wise investment.
Pillows for Side Sleepers
Side sleepers generally need more loft than back or stomach sleepers because a thicker profile helps ensure the head, neck, and shoulders stay aligned with the spine. Pillows specifically designed for side sleepers often have oblong shapes for cradling the head without sacrificing neck support.
Pillows for Back Sleepers
If you sleep on your back, then a pillow with midrange loft will probably feel most comfortable. The best pillow for back sleepers keeps the head and neck even with the body without sinking or elevating these areas too much.
Pillows for Stomach Sleepers
Since they sleep face down, most pillows for stomach sleepers have low loft. Those with thicker profiles may lift the head too much, creating soreness around the neck and shoulders. Some stomach sleepers prefer not to use a pillow at all.
Pillows for Support
In addition to traditional pillows for your head and neck, support pillows for other parts of the body are designed to reduce pain and alleviate symptoms of certain medical conditions. These pillows can be useful if you frequently wake up feeling sore, stiff, or tired from lack of sleep.
A wedge pillow is designed with an incline — rather than a flat surface — to support the head and neck. These pillows can be helpful for people who snore or live with medical conditions like acid reflux.
Knee pillows are designed to rest between the legs to optimize spinal alignment for side sleepers. Some back sleepers can also reduce lower back pain by sleeping with one of these pillows beneath their knees.
Extra-long body pillows are a great option for people who want to snuggle with a pillow while simultaneously tucking a pillow between their legs for pain relief. These pillows are particularly useful for pregnant people who feel pressure or soreness in their lower backs.
Compact, lightweight travel pillows help ensure you don’t experience stiffness or soreness between destinations. Travel pillows include smaller versions of traditional pillows, as well as more innovative designs to keep your head and neck upright when you doze while flying, riding in a car, or camping outdoors.
Ask the Sleep Doctor
Have questions about sleep? Submit them here! We use your questions to help us decide topics for articles, videos, and newsletters. We try to answer as many questions as possible. You can also send us an email. Please note, we cannot provide specific medical advice, and always recommend you contact your doctor for any medical matters.