Neck and shoulder pain—often caused by poor posture, trauma, and joint conditions—impact your comfort when laying in bed and your ability to sleep restoratively. By adjusting your sleeping position and using the right pillow, you can minimize neck and shoulder pain and sleep peacefully.
Sleeping on your stomach is the worst position when struggling with neck and shoulder pain because it strains your neck, shoulders, and back. We recommend side or back sleeping instead since they promote healthy spinal alignment and don’t put pressure on your neck and shoulders.
1. Back Sleeping Eases Pressure
Sleeping on the back evenly distributes your weight and maintains the spine’s natural curve, so your neck and shoulders aren’t compressed. Tucking a pillow or rolled towel under your knees promotes a neutral spine alignment and additionally prevents lower back pain.
Try back sleeping with your arms under your head because it minimizes pressure on your shoulder muscles, ligaments, and tendons. Another way to reduce rotator cuff pain is by placing a small pillow or a rolled-up hand towel between your shoulder blades when sleeping.
2. Side Sleeping Aligns the Spine
Side sleeping relieves neck and shoulder pain because it aligns the spine and hips and is gentle on the head and neck.
If you’re dealing with shoulder pain, always lay on the side opposite of the achy shoulder. Not only is laying on the affected shoulder painful, but it also hinders blood flow, disrupting the healing process. Shoulder pain sufferers should also try hugging a pillow or tucking one under their impacted arm to open up their shoulders and reduce pain.
According to Dr. Nayantara Santhi, “We all have our preferred sleeping positions. What position we sleep in can reduce or worsen shoulder and neck pain. Sleeping on your side with your knees slightly bent or on your back are the healthiest sleeping positions. This can reduce shoulder and neck pain and help you sleep better.”
Choosing the Best Pillows for Neck and Shoulder Pain
In addition to choosing a mattress for shoulder pain, you should look to buy a comfortable pillow for neck and shoulder pain relief because pillows keep your head in line with your spine and prevent your neck muscles from straining. Buckwheat, latex, down, and memory foam pillows are best for relieving nerve pain because they contour to your head and neck and provide excellent pressure relief.
Specialty Pillows for Neck and Shoulder Pain
Beyond standard rectangular pillows, there are countless pillow designs specifically for neck and shoulder pain relief.
Travel Neck Pillow
Travel neck pillows are horseshoe-shaped and provide neck support when you’re traveling and can’t really lie down. The pillows prevent the head from curving towards the chest or shoulders when sitting upright, triggering a stiff or sore neck.
Also called a rounded pillow, cervical pillows support your head and neck, minimize neck and shoulder pain, and promote healthy spinal alignment. Some cervical pillows have arches around the neck and are flatter under the head to maintain the natural curve of your neck. Other cervical pillows contour around the neck to hold it in place and keep the neck and shoulders aligned with the spine.
Wedge pillows support your upper body and help you sleep at an incline, reducing issues including acid reflux, obstructive sleep apnea, and neck and shoulder pain. Wedge pillows are exclusively for back sleeping—your spine is thrown out of alignment when side or stomach sleeping on a wedge pillow—and reduce pressure points on your neck and shoulders.
When side sleeping, body pillows promote healthy spinal alignment, give you an object to hug, and relieve shoulder pain. Body pillows are also known as pregnancy pillows since they support pregnant women’s stomachs and relieve symptoms commonly associated with pregnancy, such as acid reflux and lower back pain. The pillows are thick enough to keep your head in line with your spine, plus you can put them between your knees for extra support.
Most body pillows are rectangular, but another viable option is a U-shaped body pillow—a large pillow with two long arms you lay between. U-shaped pillows are larger and pricier than rectangular body pillows, but they hold you in place and provide support.
A pillow’s loft impacts how well it fills the space between your head and the mattress while keeping the spine neutral. The pillow shouldn’t be so thick as to force your chin into your chest or shoulder, but not so thin your head falls backward. Back sleepers should use mid-loft pillows (4 to 5 inches) and side sleepers should choose high-loft pillows (5 to 7 inches) for optimal support.
Is it better for my neck to sleep without a pillow?
Sleeping without a pillow puts more stress on the neck and worsens neck pain. Stomach sleepers without pain can go pillowless on a medium-firm or firm mattress, but if you already struggle from neck pain, stomach sleeping further aggravates it.
Should my shoulders be on a pillow when sleeping?
Pillows support your head and neck, not your shoulders. Placing your shoulders on a pillow lifts your entire upper body, leaving your head and neck unsupported and curved backward.
Where should I put my arms when sleeping on my side?
If you side sleep with your arm under you, it decreases blood circulation and leads to a dead arm. Instead, sleep with your arms out in front of you or hug a pillow so your arms aren’t compressed.
How do I treat neck and shoulder pain?
Most neck and shoulder pain passes within a few days or weeks with the help of home remedies. Over-the-counter (OTC) pain reliever, hot and cold compresses, pain-relief ointments, and self-massaging combat achiness. Having good posture, avoiding heavy lifting, and gentle stretching are other ways to ease your pain.
When should I see a doctor for neck and shoulder pain?
Reach out to your doctor if you have any of the following symptoms:
- Severely limited range of motion
- Numbness or loss of strength in arms and hands
- Shooting pains or muscle spasms in the shoulder or arm
- Excruciating pain
- Worsening pain despite treatment
- Pain lasting more than 6 weeks
Dr. Santhi notes, “Sleep and pain have a two-way relationship. Poor sleep can intensify the pain and conversely, pain can worsen sleep. It is well established that poor sleep affects our ability to function effectively during the day.”
Shoulder and neck pain are both generally manageable issues with proper care, including sleeping in a healthier position. Side and back sleeping are the two most soothing sleeping positions, while you should avoid stomach sleeping because it causes stiffness and strains. Additional pillows and cushioning further promote pain relief by protecting your neck and shoulders, but aren’t required to sleep comfortably.