How to Pick a Pillow to Prevent Aches + Pains

A heaping pile of pillows may not be right for you(r neck).

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Got back pain in the morning? It’s common to point the finger at your mattress: Is it too soft? Too firm? Too old? Too new? However, while you’re fighting with your mattress, the real problem might be under your nose—or your head, actually.

Your pillow plays a big role in your spinal alignment. Your neck and spine should form one relatively straight line from your head to your hips, and a pillow that’s too full or too flat could force your spine to arch or dip to compensate.

So what’s the “right” pillow to use? Well, it depends on you: your medical needs, your preferred sleeping position, and your comfort.

Choose a firm, thick pillow if you sleep on your side. This helps keep your neck in line with your spine. You can also try a gusseted pillow, which has side panels to increase its thickness.

Choose a thin pillow if you sleep on your back. The flat pillow helps keep the pressure off your neck, so your head isn’t forced unnaturally forward while you sleep. For extra support to cradle the neck, you can also try a memory foam pillow or a pillow with a lofted bottom third.

Choose the thinnest pillow possible, or skip the pillow altogether, if you’re a stomach sleeper. Sleeping on the stomach pushes your neck backward, so a flat pillow reduces pressure on your neck and lower back. (Psst … Find out why stomach-sleeping is bad for your skin here.) 

Choose a wedge pillow if you’re prone to nighttime heartburn (a different kind of pain). These help elevate the upper body by 30 degrees, which takes advantage of gravity to help keep stomach acid from creeping upwards. Here are more tips to relieve heartburn at night

Try a specialized CPAP pillow if you have sleep apnea and snooze with a CPAP mask. If you’ve ever slept in a contorted position to keep your mask from fighting with the pillow, this pillow might work for you. It’s contoured (often in a butterfly shape) to create space for the CPAP mask and hose, allowing you to sleep comfortably on your side.

If you’re using the recommended pillow and still feeling stiff in the morning, talk to your doctor to figure out what’s causing the pain. There could be underlying conditions causing morning stiffness (such as rheumatoid arthritis or fibromyalgia) that need more than just a good pillow.