Can Soft Pillows Cause Neck Pain?

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Waking up with neck pain is, well, just that. It is a terrible way to start the day and even the best coffee in the world will not make up for it. But could your bedding be to blame? Specifically, your pillow. Can soft pillows cause neck pain?

The simple answer is no, not on their own. A soft pillow is, in fact, the best choice for some people, especially those classified as stomach sleepers. However, a soft pillow in combination with the wrong sleep position may indeed be a possible cause of that waking pain in the neck.

Is your soft pillow responsible for your neck pain?

Is your soft pillow responsible for your neck pain?

A pillow that is too soft, or too flimsy, can be a problem for anyone, but especially for those who sleep on their side. Which, according to research studies is 63% of the adult US population.

Why? Because when you sleep on your side on a pillow that is too soft your head and neck are not properly supported and as you sleep your neck tilts down, out of alignment with your spine leading to that nasty pain in morning. Over time, it can lead to nerve damage that leads to chronic, instead of just occasional, neck and upper back pain.

But sleeping with a too soft pillow as a side sleeper is not the only pillow issue that may be causing you pain. Not just neck pain but also back pain and even headaches.

People often give tons of thought to their mattresses, and spend lots of money, to ensure that they have the right support for their personal sleep style, their weight, their sleeping position etc. But they give a lot less thought to the pillow they pair with that fancy mattress, opting for an easy, cheap option from the nearest discount store instead. After all, it’s only a pillow, right?

The fact is though, whether it is soft, hard or somewhere in between the pillow you sleep with is especially important and should be chosen with just as much care as the rest of your bedding. In other words, no more $2 discount store pillows if you want to wake up pain free.

Are thick pillows bad for your neck?

Thick pillows – those with lots of what the bedding industry terms ‘loft’ – can look very luxurious.

However, a thick pillow can ‘trap’ your neck in the wrong position as you sleep, preventing it from moving naturally as you shift in your sleep – which we all do – and lead to neck pain in the morning.

Pillow lofts can be categorized as follows:

  • Low-loft: pillows measuring less than 3 inches thick.
  • Medium-loft: pillows measuring between 3-5 inches thick.
  • High-loft: pillows measuring more than 5 inches thick.

Soft or firm pillows for neck pain?

Between soft and hard pillows there is no one best choice for neck pain. You need a pillow that offers enough support for your neck but is still comfortable to sleep on and allows your neck to move naturally. Some softer pillows can provide the support you need, good news for those who dislike hard pillows because they make them feel like they are sleeping on a rock!

The right pillow for you will depend on several factors; your usual sleep position, your personal preference in firmness and even on things like how ‘hot’ you tend to sleep, as very thick pillows can make that problem even worse if they are not crafted from a cooling material.

The real key to preventing neck pain caused by your pillow is careful shopping.

What’s the best sleeping position for neck pain?

Lots of medical experts feel that sleeping on your back is the very best position to prevent neck pain, as doing so will help keep your neck and spine aligned and prevent the movement of your neck from being constructed. The problem with that is that most people do not enjoy sleeping in their back – apparently on 14% of American adults do on a regular basis.

The good news is that side sleeping is almost as good as back sleeping for your neck provided your spine and neck are properly aligned. Which means – you guessed it – making use of the right pillow.

How to choose the best pillow for neck pain?

Bed pillows with different lofts

The one thing you should have realized if you have read this far is that when it comes to neck pain, and the prevention of it, a great pillow is a must. Choosing the right pillow for neck pain for you should be done with almost as much care and consideration as you would put into choosing your mattress.

So just how do you choose the best pillow for neck pain? Here are some of the most important considerations to keep in mind as you (comparison) shop:

Sleep Position

As previously mentioned, sleep researchers say that 63% of us sleep on our side, 14% on their back and the reminder on their stomach. However, only you know which category you fall into.

Not to soft and not too hard. Just like the fairy tale, although we do not suggest putting a pea underneath it to test it out. This will keep your spine and neck better aligned and prevent neck pain.

Do not choose a pillow that is too deep though, as the elevation may leave your neck positioned too high, leaving you with more neck pain in the morning, instead of less.

This unique shape is especially beneficial for back sleepers, for whom it supports the natural curve of the neck to keep the spine properly aligned.

  • Stomach Sleepers: A soft pillow only truly benefits stomach sleepers as long as the pillow keeps the head and neck at a comfortable angle.

If your neck is bent towards the side and your back is arched, which is often the case when you sleep on your stomach, that may be the cause of neck pain you wake up with. A soft flat pillow may help, or even sleeping without one at all if you have a supportive mattress. You should not make use of a higher pillow as that will only make this sleep positioning problem worse.

How high should a pillow be for side sleepers?

Pillow height is important too, although you should keep in mind that even the best pillows will begin to flatten over time, which is why they should be replaced every one to two years.

For those who sleep on their side a pillow that is medium or high-loft (between 3-5″s thick) is the best choice, and that actually holds true for almost everyone, unless you need a higher pillow to help alleviate breathing issues.

What is the best pillow for side sleepers with neck pain?

Pillow choice  can be a challenge for sleepers with chronic neck pain. Side sleepers with neck pain should look for pillows that are supportive and can offer pressure relief. Pillow loft is another important consideration. A thin or soft pillow causes the head to fall too far back increasing the strain on neck and shoulders while high-loft pillows outs the neck and spine to closely aligned.

Organic wool pillow


If you are a side sleeper and experience chronic neck pain, a pillow like PlushBeds wool pillow which has adjustable height and firmness is the perfect choice. It’s naturally hypoallergenic, chemical free and sleeps cool. It’s customizable and durable support making this pillow a good choice for side sleepers with neck pain.

See this Natural Luxury Handmade Wool Pillow on PlushBeds

What is the softest type of pillow?

Down is the softest, gentlest pillow on the market. Many people prefer down pillows because of how supportive and soft they are. They’re also puffy, supple, and known for ultimate luxury.

Instead of being filled with feathers, these pillows are filled using the fluffy layer that is found under goose feathers hence the name.

Neck pain sufferers should take special care to avoid pillows made of feather, down, or buckwheat fillers – unless their fill can be adjusted.

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