How to Buy a Pillow That’s Right for Your Neck and Your Budget

A woman rests in bed.
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Sleep is one of the most important things for our mental and physical health, but so few of us give it the attention it deserves. Things like setting and sticking to bedtimes are important for getting the National Sleep Foundation’s recommended 7 to 9 hours, but our bedtime habits also affect that sleep. Do you play games on your smartphone before bed? Do you leave the TV on all night? Are you sleeping with the wrong kind of pillow?

In fact, the pillow, or pillows, you use can have a drastic effect on your sleep quality and on your back and neck pain. But if you’re living (and sleeping) on a budget, can you find a truly supportive pillow within your price range?

Why Your Pillow Matters

I have slept with the same pillows for years, and coincidentally, I regularly complain about back and neck soreness. To learn more about selecting a pillow to improve my sleep, I reached out to Dr. Titus Wolverton, a chiropractor in Dayton, Ohio.

The most important structure to support with the pillow is the neck,” Dr. Wolverton explained. “People often suppose the most important thing to support or cradle is the head, but that’s not the case. Of the head, neck and shoulders, the narrowest part of the body is the neck. And it is very important to maintain alignment of the neck with the rest of the spine during those sleep hours. So a pillow that is designed with that additional — and proper — neck support is ideal.”

Dr. Wolverton added, “Traditional, standard pillows are generally soft and may feel nice as a cushion for the head. However, they typically collapse underneath the neck and don’t provide the neck with the specific support it needs to keep from sagging toward the mattress.”

The best type of pillow, per Dr. Wolverton, is a cervical pillow that is dual-lobed with a slight depression between the lobes. “The depression is designed for the head to rest in while one (or the other) of the lobes supports the neck. This is a great design for side sleepers. The broader a person’s shoulders, the bigger the lobe needs to be. Use the smallest lobe to support the back of the neck if sleeping on your back,” he said.

How Much a Good Pillow Costs

A stack of pillows.
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Dr. Wolverton’s suggestions sounded great to me, but I was also concerned such fancy pillows might run a little higher than I was willing to pay.

“You don’t need to necessarily spend a lot to find a good pillow for the neck,” he assured me. “But also, don’t buy a $5 piece of garbage either. There are some very poorly made pillows that are marketed as ‘cervical’ or ‘neck’ pillows that don’t provide proper support. They will neither help much nor last long.”

So how can you tell which pillow to go with? If you have a chiropractor, ask for their recommendations. It is possible their office might even sell specific brands; Dr. Wolverton’s, for example, sells the Ultima 2000 by Anabolic Laboratories, which I found online for $80 before shipping. If you are honest about your price range, your chiropractor should be able to recommend more affordable options.

If you don’t have a chiropractor, at least look for pillows with the dual lobes that Dr. Wolverton suggested. While quality can vary, they are better for your neck than the standard fluffy kind that you’ll find at Walmart.

How Much a Good Pillow Could Really Save You

A good pillow is worth the investment if you can afford it (or can add it to your birthday wish list). Why? First and foremost, a good pillow enhances your sleep, which means better physical and mental health. According to Harvard Medical School’s Division of Sleep Medicine, sleep is critical to our memory, learning, metabolism and immune function. Sleep also plays a key role in our mental health.

Our own well-being should be reason enough to invest in a supportive pillow. But for the financially motivated, consider how better sleep could lead to fewer doctor visits or fewer medications to alleviate muscle soreness.

On top of that, sleep deprivation can affect us at work. According to WebMD, a lack of sleep affects our attention and concentration, reaction time, decision making and memory. That means regular sleep deprivation could affect future raises or bonuses, inhibit your career growth or someday get you fired for a sleep deprivation-driven but consequential mistake.

Additional Sleeping Tips

A person lays in bed with their arms wrapped around a pillow.
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Getting a good night’s sleep is more than selecting the right pillow. Harvard’s Division of Sleep Medicine recommends avoiding caffeine and alcohol before bed, establishing a pre-sleep ritual, maintaining a consistent schedule, exercising early and several other healthy habits.

And I have bad news for all you stomach sleepers: Dr. Wolverton told me, “Sleeping on your stomach is very detrimental to your spinal health and may even compromise your breathing. It’s best not to ever sleep on your stomach. Instead, try sleeping on your side with a body pillow inside your arms and between the knees.”

Now that you know the value of a good night’s sleep, contact your chiropractor or trusted doctor and begin researching a pillow that will help you sleep — and don’t forget the mattress. That is, of course, if this article hasn’t put you to sleep already.

Timothy Moore is an editor, freelance writer and lifetime side sleeper. Don’t talk to him in the morning until he’s had his coffee, even if he got his full 8 hours.