What is a Neck Pillow?

Sheri Cyprus

A neck pillow is a therapeutic cushion designed to reduce and prevent body pain during sleep. Many people wake up with pain or a stiff neck from non-supportive pillows. Even if the neck pain was caused by a car accident, sports injury, stress or anxiety, a non-supportive pillow can make these conditions even more painful. Neck pillows are made in different designs and materials to offer support to the body in different ways.

A gel pack can be used to soothe neck pain caused by using non-supportive pillows.
A gel pack can be used to soothe neck pain caused by using non-supportive pillows.

The foam slab type of neck pillow is wide, rectangular and much flatter than typical feather or foam-filled pillows. Many pillows are too high for supporting the neck, as they stretch the muscles in that area upward away from the spinal column. Foam slab neck pillows usually contain two sides of different heights so the sleeper can choose the most supportive side for his or her needs. Even the higher edge is much lower than that of regular pillows so the spinal column is more supported.

Neck pillows provide proper neck support.
Neck pillows provide proper neck support.

Some people prefer a neck pillow roll, which is cylindrical or log-shaped. This type may stretch the neck too far upward for some sleepers, but for others the roll helps keep the head from moving around too much. Moving the head too much during sleep may cause muscle pain or an injury to a disc in the neck.

A non-supportive neck pillow can exacerbate neck pain.
A non-supportive neck pillow can exacerbate neck pain.

Most neck pillows meant for nightly use are styled for side or back sleepers. Stomach sleeping positions aren't usually recommended for neck health. A firm neck pillow with a deep indent in the center may help people who tend to end up sleeping on their stomach sometime during the night to stay on their back. Water-filled neck pillows aren't a good choice for stomach sleepers, but they may be helpful for people who find firm pillows too hard. The water filling is softly supportive and moves with, rather than against, the spinal column and neck muscles.

People who sleep on their back require a pillow that prevents their heads from tilting forward or backward.
People who sleep on their back require a pillow that prevents their heads from tilting forward or backward.

Small water-filled pillows that fit around the neck are commonly sold for use in bathtubs. This type of cushion can allow the bather to stretch out in the bathtub while also providing neck relief from hard tub or bathroom tile surfaces. Some types of bath neck pillows are inflatable; these can also double as a travel or office pillow. Sitting in the same position for many hours in an airplane seat or office chair may create neck pain. A portable neck pillow can help prevent the pain by supporting the neck's discs and muscles.

A neck pillow can help alleviate pain caused by a car wreck.
A neck pillow can help alleviate pain caused by a car wreck.

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