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Is back pain preventing you from getting the sleep you need? Could changing your pillow help?
Frequent back pain is a problem that is robbing millions of Americans of the high-quality sleep they need. This type of discomfort can be temporary without a known cause or could be ongoing and a result of various medical conditions.
Believe it or not, your sleeping position, the type of mattress you have, and even your pillow may all be contributing to the problem. In this guide, you will learn some of the top strategies for alleviating back pain and find our choices for the top rated pillows for back pain.
5 Top Rated Back Pain Pillows Reviewed
ComfiLife – Best Knee Pillow for Side Sleepers
The ComfiLife knee pillow was designed to help alleviate discomfort related to sciatica, back and joint pain, post-injury, and pregnancy. Certain sleeping positions can result in spinal misalignment and place pressure on the shoulders, hips, and knees.
ComfiLife is ergonomically shaped to fit between the knees and should provide support and spinal alignment while improving circulation. The durable construction features 100% high-density memory foam that is designed to be heat and weight responsive. In warmer temperatures, this cushion should feel softer and more pliable and in cooler temperatures, it should feel firm.
This pillow can be placed between the knees, calves, or under a single leg while sleeping on the back or side. The breathable, zippered cover should help to regulate heat from the memory foam and is machine washable. ComfiLife was designed to provide long-lasting comfort and relief from discomfort that may be hindering sleep.
BeautifulLife – Best Half Pillow
For sleepers looking for effective orthopedic pain relief, this bedroll from BeautifulLife may be an option worth considering. This multi-position bolster features a half-moon design that should provide optimal cushioning and lumbar support while sitting or sleeping. You can use this cushion under the knees, between the legs, to elevate the ankles, or even for lumbar support while driving in the car.
Individuals suffering from sciatica, scoliosis, lower back, or nerve pain may find relief from the extra comfort and support this pillow offers. Regardless of sleeping position, this bedroll should help to maintain hip and spinal alignment and alleviate pressure from key areas.
This product features 100% premium quality visco-elastic memory foam which is designed to be hypo-allergenic. This cushion measures 20.5″ x 8″ x 4.5″ and features a breathable, machine-washable organic cotton cover. This half-moon bolster was designed to hold its shape throughout the night and for long-term use.
UTTU – Best Adjustable Orthopedic
UTTU (abbreviated from cUT ouT for yoU) is a unique cut and layer pillow that offers an adjustable fit for any sleeping position. This sandwich design features three separate layers that fit together like a puzzle, offering four different lofts (heights).
UTTU features a therapeutic ergonomic shape that is designed to conform to the natural cervical curve of the head and neck, promoting proper spinal alignment. This cushion is constructed with 3 lbs of high density Dynamic® Foam that boasts a slow, 5-second rebound. Unlike traditional foam, this special formula is designed to remain consistently firm and comfortable all year long despite changes in temperature.
The multi-layer bamboo fabric cover features mesh on both sides and is designed for breathability and proper air circulation for a cool night’s rest. UTTU is certified by CertiPUR-US, ISPA (International Sleep Products Association), and OEKO-TEX for performance, durability, quality.
ComfiLife – Best Lumbar Chair Support
The ComfiLife lumbar support back pillow is an orthopedic cushion designed for use at the office, in the car, or any time you are in a sitting position. This small but supportive design comes highly recommended by chiropractors for lower back pain relief and posture support.
The contoured shape and high-density memory foam should provide spinal relief and support for the lumbar vertebrae disks. The adjustable elastic strap is designed to fit most chairs and to work with your car seat, office chair, in an airplane, or even in a wheelchair (although it may not fit some contoured seats).
The 3D ventilative mesh cover should be breathable, allowing for adequate airflow and temperature regulation. When needed, this cover can be removed for easy cleaning. This small, lightweight design measures 15 x 12.5 x 4.7 inches and is designed for portability and long-term use.
Ziraki – Best Seat Cushion
The Ziraki memory foam seat cushion was designed to support the back, tailbone, and coccyx for comfortable seating anywhere. This could be a great option for individuals who experience discomfort while sitting due to herniated discs, sciatica, tailbone injuries, hemorrhoids, spinal or hip pain, and during pregnancy.
This U-shaped pillow should support the natural arch of the lower back, promote spinal alignment, and offer comfort for prolonged sitting. The anatomic shape is designed to fit your body’s contours, curving to support the legs and tailbone. You could use this cushion on long car rides, while traveling, at home, or anywhere else life may find you.
The premium, high-quality memory foam should gently mold to support your body’s curves for extended support without flattening. The plush velvet cover features a breathable design with a convenient zipper for easy washing. This compact cushion should be easily transportable for support and relief everywhere you go.
When it comes to shopping for a pillow for back pain, there are several factors to keep in mind. Some pillows are designed for traditional use under the head, some are meant for use between the knees or ankles, and some feature a multi-use design. Also consider your body weight, sleep position, ideal pillow loft (height), and temperature regulation.
When Back Pain Makes Sleeping Challenging
For millions of Americans suffering from debilitating back pain, getting adequate rest can feel like an impossible task. According to the 2015 Sleep in America Poll, 57% of Americans experience pain, averaging a sleep debt of 14-42 minutes per night as a result. Pain increases the likelihood of developing insomnia and may also lead to microarousals, which are brief awakenings throughout the night that can severely impact the quality of rest.
According to research, “sleep complaints are present in 67-88% of chronic pain disorders and at least 50% of individuals with insomnia—the most commonly diagnosed disorder of sleep impairment—suffer from chronic pain.” Both of these conditions are also associated with depression, obesity, and type 2 diabetes.
Studies have also found that sleep deprivation increases inflammatory markers in the body, exacerbating pain. Without adequate rest, the body experiences a state of increased stress, leading to a worsening of symptoms and preventing the healing that it so desperately craves. This chicken and egg scenario between sleep and pain can make treating both conditions challenging.
Not only does experiencing pain hinder falling and staying asleep, but the resulting stress and anxiety can make matters worse too. Worrying about discomfort and wakefulness may increase anxious thoughts, further contributing to insomnia and chronic pain.
Acute or short-term pain may occur from injuries to soft tissues and ligaments, heavy lifting, or bending and moving in an awkward position. While most cases resolve in around 6-8 weeks, a lack of adequate rest may prolong the healing period and contribute to a prolonged pain experience.
Chronic pain is ongoing, possibly for many years depending on the cause. This type of long-term discomfort is often secondary to conditions like arthritis, nerve damage, accidents and injuries, or diseases such as cancer and AIDS.
Lower back pain is one of the most frequently reported types of pain and is the second most common complaint during a visit to the doctor. Some people may only experience this discomfort during the night, a condition known as nocturnal pain. Although there are many diseases and conditions that may be contributing, often the cause remains unknown.
Trying to sleep while experiencing pain may feel like you are battling two monsters at the same time, but finding ways to promote comfort overnight could dramatically improve the quality of rest and allow the body to heal.
Why to Consider Pillow Support When Sleeping in Bed
Ideally, lower-end pillows should be changed every 6 months and high-quality memory foam or specialty pillows should be replaced after 1-2 years. The reality is that many people hold on to the familiarity of these items for much longer, sleeping on surfaces that are flat and lumpy.
Discomfort that is worse in the morning but gradually dissipates and even disappears throughout the day may be a sign that the spine is being inadequately supported during the night. Sleeping in any position that places the spine in an unnatural position will eventually lead to aches and pains.
Pillow Strategies for Sleeping Positions
If a pillow is too high or too low, the head will not be in alignment with the spine. Individuals with certain medical conditions may also benefit from additional support between the knees, under the legs, or to elevate a single limb.
- Knees Tucked to Chest (Fetal Position): The fetal position can be helpful for those suffering from lower back or disc pain. Tucking the knees into the chest while lying on one side should help to open up the spine and alleviate unnecessary pressure. In this position, a medium-high loft pillow would be ideal.
- Pillow Between Knees: Placing a pillow between the knees may help to promote proper alignment of the hips and pelvis with the spine. Ideally, the area between the shoulders and the hips should make contact with the mattress; otherwise, a small pillow can be placed in this area too.
- Pillow Under Pelvis: Placing a pillow under the pelvis and lower abdomen should help to reduce strain on the spine and prevent the back from sinking into the mattress. Sleeping without a pillow under the head is ideal for stomach sleepers, but if necessary, a small pillow can be used.
Head Size, Shoulder Width, and Weight Factors
The size and shape of your body are important considerations when it comes to choosing the right pillow. People with small to average sized heads may prefer medium height pillows to feel the most comfortable. Individuals with larger noggins may find that they sink too deeply into average pillows and often prefer higher lofts that can adequately support their heads.
Similar to head size, people with narrow shoulders often prefer lower or medium height pillows that keep the head and neck in a neutral position with the spine. Having broader shoulders may create unnecessary gaps between the head and the pillow, but a higher loft could help to support the head and provide the extra space they need.
Body weight is also a factor when it comes to shopping for the right pillow. Lighter individuals are less prone to sink into the mattress and tend to prefer medium-loft pillows that will help to promote optimal spinal alignment. Those with heavier weight considerations are more likely to experience sinkage and may find a lower-loft pillow helps to keep the head even with the spine.
Depending on the type and location of back pain, the pillow shape could make a difference. While there are many pillow shapes, they can be generalized into two major categories:
- Curved: Also known as cervical or orthopedic pillows, these cushions have a contoured surface that is designed to support the head and neck. Most are made from memory foam.
- Even: These traditional pillows feature a flat, even surface but vary widely in the type of material they contain, loft, and size. While a standard polyester fill may be inadequate for supporting individuals with back pain, materials that offer more conformity for relieving pressure on the neck and spine are ideal.
Pillow loft is a term for the thickness or height of a pillow before any weight is placed on it. While individual manufacturers often have their own definition of loft, most fall into the following categories:
- Low: < 3 inches thick
- Medium: 3-5 inches thic
- High: > 5 inches thick
Sleeping position is a big factor in determining the best pillow choice. The ideal loft depends on whether you sleep on your back, stomach, side, or find yourself changing positions frequently throughout the night.
Sleeping on the back helps to promote a straight spine, so a low or medium loft pillow should help to keep the head in a neutral position with the spine. Side sleeping often creates space between the head and mattress, requiring a medium to high loft to fill this gap. Stomach sleepers often prefer a lower loft or no pillow at all since even mild elevation of the head may cause strain on the neck and spine.
There are many options when it comes to fill materials, each with pros and cons. Keep in mind things like allergies, temperature regulation, and whether you prefer sinkage or greater support. Some models also allow you to adjust the loft by adding or removing some of the fill materials.
- Memory Foam: Memory foam may be solid or shredded and is designed to soften upon contact with body heat, contouring to the shape of the head and neck. While this material is popular in orthopedic designs and may offer exceptional pressure relief, traditional and non-treated materials tend to absorb heat and sleep “hot” which may not be ideal for many sleepers.
- Latex: Latex is a material extracted from the sap of rubber trees. This material usually maintains its shape for a long lifespan and provides even support. Unfortunately, latex tends to be dense and heavy and could be an allergen for some individuals.
- Polyester: Polyester may refer to interlocking fibers or shredded polyfoam, similar to memory foam but at a lower cost. This material offers an affordable option that could provide support and relief from back pain, but these pillows often flatten easily and may sleep hot.
- Buckwheat: Buckwheat is a grain-like seed that is a natural and hypoallergenic material. They may offer an adjustable loft and good temperature regulation but are often quite heavy and firm. Buckwheat does offer good support but most individuals with back pain prefer something softer.
- Feathers: Pillows containing the outer feathers from geese or ducks are usually firmer than “down” pillows, offering greater support for those suffering from back pain. Many have an adjustable loft and a long lifespan. Unfortunately, most feather pillows are very expensive and tend to flatten easily.
- Down: Down fill refers to the soft, inner feathers from ducks or geese, possibly with outer plumage for extra padding. These soft pillows may feature an adjustable loft and are known to sleep cool. Down feathers often flatten quickly and are not as supportive for individuals with back issues.
- Down Alternatives: Down alternatives are designed to mimic the softness of real feathers but are actually made from polyester fibers. Down alternatives can be a good option for those with an allergy to feathers and are often more affordable. These pillows are very soft and tend to flatten over time, making them less suitable for back support.
- Water: Water pillows feature chambers that can be filled with water to adjust the loft. These designs usually have a foam padding to increase comfort and are known for offering exceptional relief from pain and pressure. These pillows tend to retain their shape and adjust to the alignment of the body
Additional Considerations for Relief
Potential Coping Strategies
Finding relief from back pain may take time while your body tries to heal. It may be tempting to want to curl up on the couch and wait this process out, but most experts recommend a dynamic healing approach. These strategies may help to manage pain and promote healing so you can get back to your normal self:
- Keep moving: Best rest and inactivity may weaken the muscles, slowing the healing process and making pain worse. While this isn’t the best time to train for a marathon or take up a new sport, gentle activities like walking, yoga, and light stretching could be helpful.
- Consider sleep position: As we’ve talked about, certain positions may contribute to pain or make it worse. Try changing your sleep position or using pillows to optimally support the spine.
- Use heat and ice: Heat is known to help loosen tight muscles and ice is used for decreasing inflammation and pain. Try applying something cool like an ice pack or a frozen bag of vegetables for 15 minutes every hour for immediate relief. A warm compress or hot bath may also be helpful, and some people find alternating heat and ice is the most effective.
- Lose the chair: Sitting at an office desk for hours at a time can lead to slouching and place increased pressure on the spine. Try a standing desk or sitting on a balance ball that forces you to use your core muscles, improving posture.
- Get a massage: A study of 400 individuals found that weekly massage over a 10 week period increased functioning and reduced chronic back pain. If you can’t afford to see a massage therapist, ask your partner to gently massage your most painful areas.
- Reduce stress: It may be hard to see how stress relates to pain, but individuals who have higher levels of stress also tend to report higher levels of pain. Stress can also increase the inflammatory response and prevent healing.
Pain-Reducing Mattress Toppers
Many people choose a mattress based on what they think they will like or what feels comfortable when they test it out at the store. Testing out a mattress for a few minutes while shopping can be very different than sleeping on this surface for multiple hours every day. For this reason, many companies offer trial periods and free exchange.
If buying a new mattress is not an option, mattress toppers can be a great way to change the support and feel of your bed. Toppers offer an individual layer of cushioning that sits on top of your existing mattress, making it possible to adjust the level of firmness.
Making Sure You Have the Right Mattress
If you suffer from back pain, having the right amount of support is important. The firmness of your mattress can make the difference between a comfortable night’s rest or feeling bent out of shape the next morning.
Your ideal mattress will depend on sleeping position, body weight, and the construction/material. There are many supportive mattress brands available to suit your needs. If you are unsure about where to begin, consult one of our mattress guides to help you choose the right mattress for you.
Back pain is one of the most common disabilities affecting America’s workforce, and the effects are widespread, impacting work, daily life, and sleep. Without rest, pain can become a chronic issue preventing the body from being able to heal. Having the right support at night isn’t a cure, but it can make a huge difference in relieving pressure and pain.
There are many different pillow options available, each with pros and cons. Hopefully, this guide has helped you to understand the differences and make an informed decision about how to choose the perfect pillow for you.