Using a Wedge Pillow for Acid Reflux (GERD)

By McKenzie Hyde
Last Updated On November 13th, 2020

For those who suffer from acid reflux or GERD getting acan be challenging. When these sleepers lie down at night, stomach acid can flow back into the esophagus, causing a…

Using a Wedge Pillow for Acid Reflux (GERD)

For those who suffer from acid reflux or GERD (gastroesophageal reflux disease), Verified Source Mayo Clinic Ranked #1 hospital by U.S. News & World Report and one of the most trusted medical institutions in the world. The staff is committed to integrated patient care, education, and research. View source getting a getting a good night's sleep Verified Source National Library of Medicine (NIH) World’s largest medical library, making biomedical data and information more accessible. View source can be challenging. When these sleepers lie down at night, stomach acid can flow back into the esophagus, causing a painful burning sensation often referred to as heartburn. This pain can make it difficult to get comfortable and fall asleep quickly. It can also result in nighttime disruptions that lead to lost hours of sleep.

Many individuals with chronic acid reflux find relief by resting on an incline. Gently lifting the upper body encourages stomach acid to flow away from the esophagus. A comfortable and safe way to achieve an incline during sleep is by using a wedge pillow. Throughout this article, we explain what a wedge pillow is and the various types available. Plus, we cover how to safely use a wedge pillow to alleviate symptoms of acid reflux.

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What is a Wedge Pillow?

A wedge pillow is an orthopedic, triangle-shaped pillow tapered on an incline. The shape is similar to a wedge of cheese, hence the name “wedge pillow.” These pillows comfortably lift the upper body to a 30 to 45-degree angle so gravity can keep acid down and prevent regurgitation. Wedge pillows can also open up the airways for those with obstructive sleep apnea. Plus, they can be used to elevate the legs to improve circulation and relieve pressure on the lumbar spine.

Although most wedge pillows serve a similar purpose, they can vary in terms of incline, size, weight, materials, shape, firmness level, temperature regulation, and price. Below, we outline the various types of wedge pillows available and why they may or may not be right for you.

Incline

The angle on most wedge pillows ranges between 30 to 45 degrees or about 6 to 12 inches. For those with acid reflux and sleep apnea, we suggest a wedge pillow with a mid-level incline, a 35 to 40-degree angle.

A pillow with a lower incline, a 30 to 32-degree angle, is ideal for use under the knees or legs, while a higher incline, (43 to 45-degree angle), is great for supporting the neck and back when sitting up in bed.

Size

Wedge pillows often measure 20 to 24 inches long. The width is also typically between 20 to 24 inches; however, the height of the incline can vary between 6 to 12 inches. Wedge pillows are often bigger than standard pillow sizes, so be sure to consider your size preferences and the size of your mattress before purchasing.

Individuals who frequently toss and turn, or those who have a larger bed, such as a queen or king size, may prefer a large wedge pillow. For petite individuals or those with a smaller bed, such as a twin or a full size, a wedge pillow on the smaller side may work best.

Weight

The weight of a wedge pillow will vary depending on the depth of the angle. The bigger the incline, the more the pillow will weigh. High incline wedge pillows, such as those with a 43 to 45-degree angle, typically weigh between 10 and 12 points. Smaller models, such as those made for children, often weigh between 2 and 4 pounds.

Although the weight of the pillow can vary, wedge pillows tend to be heavier than traditional pillows. The extra weight is needed to keep the pillow from shifting, so sleepers remain in an upright position throughout the night.

Contoured vs. Flat

All wedge pillows have a triangular shape with a gradual slope. However, some may have a contoured or curved surface to keep the head, neck, and shoulders aligned, allowing the spine to remain neutral. Contoured wedge pillows work well for side sleepers and combination sleepers. Instead of a curved surface, some wedge pillows have a flat surface, which works well for back sleepers.

Materials

Most wedge pillows are made of memory foam or poly-foam, or a combination of the two. Both foam types contour to the body for maximum support and pressure relief. Plus, both foams are available in a variety of firmness levels, ranging from ultra-soft and firm. The versatility of these materials allows manufacturers to construct a soft yet durable wedge pillow to keep sleepers in a comfortable elevated position throughout the night.

Firmness Level

Wedge Pillow for Acid Reflux

To maintain their sturdy and supportive shape, most wedge pillows are medium-firm to firm. Side sleepers often prefer a medium-firm wedge pillow because they are soft enough to cradle and cushion the shoulder joints. However, back sleepers typically prefer a firm wedge pillow to prevent sinkage.

Temperature Regulation

Foam tends to retain heat and moisture, causing sleepers to wake in the night due to night sweats and overheating. Since many wedge pillows are made with foam, hot sleepers should shop for a pillow with cooling abilities. Foams made with plant-based oils or gel-infusions tend to retain less heat. Also, pillows with built-in ventilation channels have better airflow to prevent heat-trapping.

Price

A wedge pillow made with quality materials will cost between $50 and $100. The price of the pillow will fluctuate based on the size and durability. Memory foam wedge pillows tend to be more expensive than those made with poly-foam; however, memory foam is more durable and lasts much longer.

How to Use a Wedge Pillow?

If you frequently experience heartburn due to acid indigestion, we suggest using a medium loft wedge pillow with an incline between 30 and 40 degrees. When using an acid reflux pillow, the lowest part of the incline should end in the middle of the back. The highest part of the incline should rest beneath the head, and there should be 2 to 3 inches of space between the head and the end of the pillow.

Wedge Pillows and Sleep Positions

Wedge pillows are not soft and snuggly. Instead, they have a firm, supportive feel to keep sleepers resting at a comfortable incline throughout the night. While these pillows can help anyone with acid reflux, they do not work well for all sleep positions. The following list indicates the sleep styles best suited for a wedge pillow.

Side Sleepers

When resting on one’s side, the shoulder and hip joints bear most of the body weight. A wedge pillow is ideal for side sleepers because the slight incline keeps the spine aligned and prevents tension buildup. A contoured memory foam wedge pillow with a medium-firm feel works well for these sleepers because it’s soft enough to cradle and protect the joints from pressure points.

Back Sleepers

Those who prefer back sleeping often experience snoring. This is because the ring of muscles and soft tissue at the back of the throat collapse during sleep. As sleepers exhale and air passes through this tissue, it causes a loud vibrating noise. A wedge pillow can prevent this by forcing the tongue to fall forward rather than backward, preventing obstruction.

For back sleepers, we recommend a wedge pillow with a firmer feel to prevent spinal misalignment so sleepers can wake up with less pain.

Stomach Sleepers

Stomach sleepers often experience neck and back pain because this position forces the spine to bow unnaturally, causing tension build-up in these areas. Therefore, stomach sleepers need a flat sleep surface to lessen the curvature of the spine.

Using a wedge pillow will only cause tension and pain to get worse for stomach sleepers. If you prefer to rest on your stomach and you frequently experience GERD, we recommend switching to the side or back so you can enjoy the benefits of a wedge pillow.

Combinations Sleepers

Combination sleepers who alternate between side and back sleeping should select a large wedge pillow. A pillow with a wider surface area will prevent these sleepers from rolling onto the mattress during the night.

Who Else Can Benefit From a Wedge Pillow?

In addition to acid reflux, wedge pillows can also help alleviate symptoms associated with the following conditions:

  • Poor circulation: Those with poor circulation can place a wedge pillow beneath their feet or legs to promote blood flow to the heart. This can reduce swelling and prevent blood clots. A wedge pillow can also prevent blood from collecting in the lower legs and causing the development of varicose veins.
  • Shoulder, back, and neck pain: Whether you are a side or back sleeper, a wedge pillow promotes proper spinal alignment to alleviate tension. For those with chronic pain, a neutral spine will allow muscles to relax and recover during sleep.
  • Obstructive sleep apnea: For those with sleep apnea, the slight elevation of a wedge pillow can open up the airways and make breathing more comfortable. When the airways are not obstructed, breathing is less likely to start and stop during sleep.
  • Pregnancy women: Side sleeping is recommended for pregnant women to encourage blood flow to the fetus. A wedge pillow or a therapeutic body pillow can be placed behind the body to prevent rolling to the back. Pregnant women who experience lower back or hip pain can also place a wedge pillow between their knees to relieve muscle tension.

Frequently Asked Questions

Is snoring and acid reflux related?

Although GERD and snoring are not always related, acid reflux symptoms can lead to snoring. When stomach acid travels back up the esophagus, it can cause the soft tissue in the airways to swell. This causes them to narrow and can lead to loud snoring.

How much should you elevate your head for acid reflux?

Acid reflux sufferers should elevate the head to an angle between 35 and 45 degrees. Wedge pillows with a mid-loft will sit about 8 to 10 inches above the mattress’s surface. An adjustable bed frame can also be used to achieve this lift.

What is the best sleeping position for acid reflux?

Sleeping on your left side is best for acid reflux. When resting in this position, gravity can return fluid to the stomach much quicker than when resting on your back or the right side. The slight elevation achieved with a wedge pillow can improve acid reflux even more.

Why does acid reflux get worse at night?

Acid reflux gets worse at night because once the body is reclined, it is easier for stomach acid to flow back up into the esophagus. When the body is upright, gravity discourages these fluids from entering the esophagus.

Can GERD make it hard to breathe?

Yes, it is common for those with GERD to experience shortness of breath, wheezing, and chronic coughing. Many individuals with GERD often develop asthma and sleep apnea. Elevating the head at night can help reduce acid reflux and open up the airways to make breathing easier.

What causes acid reflux?

A wedge pillow can alleviate the side effects of GERD and help you get a better night’s sleep. However, it is also important to get to the root of the problem. Acid reflux can be caused by a hiatal hernia, pregnancy, smoking, poor diet, certain medications, and obesity. If the occurrence of heartburn persists over time, you should discuss your condition with a healthcare provider.

Conclusion

If acid reflux is keeping you awake at night and causing you to miss out on precious hours of sleep, a wedge pillow may be just what you need. These pillows are versatile, functional, and affordable. Plus, elevating the head during sleep can improve many other conditions, including spinal misalignment, nasal congestion, and snoring.

This article is for informational purposes and should not replace advice from your doctor or other medical professional.


About the author

McKenzie Hyde is a Certified Sleep Science Coach and a full-time writer focused on sleep health and the mattress industry. She currently writes articles on a variety of topics, ranging from sleep hygiene to the newest trends in the mattress and bedding industry. Just some of the topics she has covered include best sleep practices for students, the consequences of going without sleep, and choosing the right bed if you suffer from back pain. McKenzie Hyde holds a Master of Arts degree from Utah State University where she studied literature and writing. While there, she taught argumentative writing and wrote a variety of articles and analyses for literary and academic journals.

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