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Side sleepers’ guide to the best pillow for neck & shoulder pain

side-sleeper

Relieve your aches and pains by choosing the right pillow for side sleeping

Nobody should go to sleep dreading waking up. But when you know the first thing you’ll have to do in the morning is roll your stiff neck and stretch open your hunched shoulders, listening to the pop and crackle of your joints and vertebrae like marbles in a dryer, its only natural to get a little anxious.

That’s life for far too many side sleepers. And we won’t stand for it. Fortunately, it’s a simple fix for most cases, because you’re almost certainly sleeping on the wrong pillow for your sleep position.

We’re going to teach you how to choose the right pillow for side sleeping.

What you’ll learn

  • Why side sleeping causes joint pain
  • Whether you should try other sleep positions instead
  • How to choose the best pillow for side sleeping
  • The best materials for side sleeping pillows
  • Our pro tips
  • Summary
  • man-sleeping-on-his-side

Why does side sleeping cause shoulder pain and neck pain?

Side sleeping pain occurs when your pillow and mattress can’t support your spine, shoulder and neck alignment. When you sleep on your side on an unsupportive mattress and pillow, two issues inevitably occur. The first is that your spine will sink out of its neutral position and begin to bend, arch and curve. The second is that your shoulders, stacked one above the other, will misalign and slip, crumpling into each other.

These joint misalignments occur subtly. Being fast asleep, you might not even notice them. But you’ll end up holding these stress positions for hours — you’ll feel them in the morning, as you well know.

Side sleepers need pillows that can help maintain neck, shoulder and spinal alignment to provide shoulder relief and alleviate neck pain.

Is side sleeping good or should you choose a different sleeping style?

If sleeping on your side is causing you chronic neck pain, shoulder pain or back pain, you might think it’s time to just try something else — maybe stomach sleepers know the secret to shoulder pain relief, and what if those back sleepers know how to avoid a sore neck?

We suggest you wait. The problem likely isn’t the position, so don’t give up on side sleeping just yet. Besides, sleeping on your side has a number of unique benefits:

  • Side sleeping reduces snoring and the effects of sleep apnea by keeping your airways clear and open.
  • Side sleeping improves digestion and gut health by allowing food to easily pass through your digestive system.
  • Side sleeping promotes blood circulation to the heart, especially for pregnant women.
  • Side sleeping relieves the pressure points on the back compared to other sleeping positions.

While it’s possible to train yourself into a new sleeping position, your body knows what it naturally finds comfortable. And if sleeping on your side comes naturally, let’s try and make that work. The first step is finding the right pillow. 

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How to choose the best pillow to alleviate neck and shoulder pain

Make sure it has the supportive feel

Firmness is a critical factor in choosing a pillow (and a mattress, for that matter). It can be a tough balance for side sleepers. A softer pillow can cause neck pain by being too plush to support the weight of your head. A firm pillow can be too hard to provide enough pressure relief for your muscles and joints.

We recommend side sleepers use a medium/firm pillow. This balance between softness and support will keep your joints and spine aligned.

Check it has the comfortable shape

There’s no such thing as a generic standard pillow. The shape of every pillow varies by material, design, manufacturing process and a dozen other factors. It may take a little exploring to determine what shape works best for you. But the factor you’re looking for is support.

Side sleepers benefit from pillows with a wide, flat sleeping surface that can fully support the head. Neck pain sufferers also benefit from contour pillows, which have a double-peak design that provides extra neck support for the neck.

Ensure it’s the right height

A pillow with the right feel and shape support the joints and muscles of the neck, but the height of a pillow, also known as the pillow loft, plays a major part in supporting your shoulders.

If you have narrow shoulders and sleep on high-loft pillows, you’ll stretch the muscles in the side of your neck, shoulders and shoulder blade. If you have broad shoulders, a low-lift pillow, your unequally supported shoulders will slip and collapse.

Look for a brand or design that comes in a range of heights, so that you can test them and find a supportive pillow. You can tell it’s the right loft if your chin and sternum are aligned when you’re lying on your side.

Side sleepers need a taller pillow to align their neck and spine and support their shoulders equally.

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The best material for a side sleeper pillow

When picking a pillow based on its construction materials, there are several factors to consider. Every material has its benefits — some overlap and some don’t. By now, you know you need a medium/firm, tall pillow, preferably wide and flat or contoured for extra support. 

But there are questions of hygiene, heat management, airflow and even sustainability that might be important for you to ask. When you know what matters to you, you’ll know which pillow to pick.

This is a great time to consider the value of a good pillow protector. If you fall in love with a particular pillow, pairing it with the high-quality pillow protector can add to its benefits and overcome any shortcomings it might have. Having a machine washable cover will also help you maintain hygiene and keep your pillow clean after any spills and accidents.

So, what qualities should you look for in pillow materials?

Is the material breathable?

Breathability is a matter of airflow and determines whether pillows sleep hot or cool. It also affects the hygiene of the pillow, as a stagnant pillow is a breeding ground for bacteria.

A latex pillow is an excellent choice for side sleepers seeking breathability. They’re also quite firm and mould to the contours of the head and neck naturally. Latex for pillows can be produced naturally or synthetically. For those with health issues, an organic latex pillow is hypoallergenic and antibacterial, making it great for asthmatics and those with eczema.

Memory foam pillows can also be a great choice, depending on the quality of the foam. It’s an extremely popular material because its ability to gently conform to the head and neck in any position at any angle makes it extremely comfortable. But lower quality memory foam pillows aren’t very breathable, absorb body heat and sleep hot. However, a high-quality memory foam pillow can deliver cooling breathability while maintaining its firm support. Covering it with a breathable quality mattress protector will make it even better. A great choice for side sleepers to consider.

Are the materials natural and organic?

Wanting natural materials might be a matter of personal values. Of course, it always feels good to do good. But organic materials also make for a comfortable and hygienic pillow, too.

We’ve already mentioned the benefits of latex, but cotton, bamboo and cellulosic fibres (refined wood pulp) are great elements to look out for. Each of these materials is hypoallergenic, breathable and extremely soft.

Can the pillow wick moisture and stay odour-free?

Moisture-wicking is a vital quality for warm summer nights, or for those who sleep hot generally. For side sleepers, whose faces are pressed against their pillows all night, having a pillow that’ll stay dry and cool and disperse odours is a pretty big benefit.

Bamboo and Tencel have great moisture-wicking properties, as does polyester. This quality also inhibits bacteria growth, and hygiene is always a major plus.

Side sleepers should consider a pillow with a firm, supportive core and a breathable, cool and hypoallergenic pillow protector.

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Final tips

Always check the trial period

Whether you buy it online or test it in-store, the true value of a pillow reveals itself over time. The only way to be sure that your pillow is giving you support your side sleeping demands is to take the time to settle into it. That takes at least a month.

The trial period allows side sleepers to test if their new pillow contours to their neck, supports their shoulders and wicks away odours and stays cool through the night. A strong trial period is also an indication of quality. Reputable manufacturers are always confident in their products, after all. 

Side sleepers should consider pillows with a 100-night trial period, minimum.

Get a pillow for your knees

While we’re trying to solve the problem of neck and back pain, we cannot afford to overlook the hips. The hips are just as susceptible to misalignment and slipping as the shoulders are, and you can’t keep your spine aligned if your hips are askew.

Side sleepers with hip pain and misalignment should consider getting a medium/firm hybrid mattress. That will give their entire body the support their sleep position needs to alleviate pain.

But, barring that option, you could make do by tucking a pillow between your knees. You’ll need a pillow that’s thick enough to keep your knees and hips neutral and aligned. This simple trick can make a huge difference to your comfort. Still, the only long-term solution is to get yourself the right mattress for side sleeping.

In summary: what is the best type of pillow for a side sleeper?

The best pillow to help side sleepers overcome their back and neck pain:

  • has a medium/firm feel to support the neck, shoulders and spine in a neutral position
  • has a wide, flat surface to evenly support the head, or is contoured for added neck support
  • is the right height to keep the shoulders comfortable stacked
  • is breathable and sleeps cool
  • is hypoallergenic

With a pillow that meets these criteria, a side sleeper is well on their way to a better night’s sleep and pain-free morning.

Our recommendation is the Australian-made Sleep Republic memory foam pillow. It has a medium/firm feel and comes in two heights for side sleepers to choose from. Plus, it has a 6-year warranty and a 100-night trial. Give it a try and say adieu to shoulder and neck pain.