People with chronic and/or acute neck pain are often overwhelmed with web pages, ads, emails, etc. about what is the best pillow for them. Most bedding stores have a line of pillows they tout as the best pillow to buy for neck pain. Is there any scientific support for the claims made for better sleep, lowered neck pain, and headache relief? Which of the many different designs of support pillow is most likely to be helpful for most people? Are there any risks or problems associated with the use of cervical pillows?
While many doctors have used and recommended cervical support pillows for years, the scientific evidence for benefit has been skimpy, at best. Empirical and anecdotal reports from patients who describe improved sleep and decreased pain have often been all that is available. Let’s review three reasonably good scientific studies which have attempted to address some of the questions regarding cervical pillows.
Unfortunately, these three studies took different investigative approaches and evaluated different pillows. This means the findings are not directly comparable, and no definitive conclusions can be made. However, the results are worth reviewing, since they give us some guidance in selecting a support pillow.
Comparing Two Pillows. In a study performed at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, (1) Drs. Lavin, Pappagallo, and Kuhlemeier recruited 46 subjects with chronic neck pain and cervicogenic headaches. The investigation compared their daily pain levels, sleep quality, and medication consumption during one week on their own pillows, followed by two weeks each on two special neck support pillows. One of the pillows was a “cervical roll” (Jackson-type pillow), and the other was a “water-based cervical pillow.” A statistically significant improvement in all scores was recorded when using the water pillow. Most subjects preferred the water pillow to their own pillow, and many had a very difficult time sleeping on the roll pillow. In fact, the researchers reported that some of the patients had to discontinue the two-week trial of the roll pillow due to significant discomfort.
In conclusion, the investigators felt that the higher satisfaction ratings of the water pillow were due to its ability to conform better to the position and shape of the subjects’ head and neck during various sleep positions. They believed that the roll pillow was not well-tolerated due to its tendency to exaggerate the extension of the neck when supine (since there was no support underneath the head).
Looking at One Pillow. A small feasibility study at Canadian Memorial Chiropractic College seemed to find very different results. (2) After recording two weeks of baseline pain ratings in 30 subjects with chronic neck pain, the researchers supplied a roll-type cervical pillow (a soft cylinder shape). Of those who persevered in using the pillow for four weeks (many subjects found the pillow to be very uncomfortable initially), most reported decreases in neck pain. However, three subjects described increased neck pain during use of the pillow, and two women dropped out of the trial, saying they were unable to tolerate the discomfort they experienced when using the cylindrical pillow. Since the data collected do not reflect these “pillow failures,” and since there was no placebo or comparison with other pillows, this study’s conclusions should be considered overly optimistic. This demonstrates the difficulty in designing a scientifically valid and practically useful scientific investigation.
Comparing Six Pillows. At Lund University Hospital in Sweden, researchers studied the responses of 55 subjects to three nights on each of six different pillows. (3) Unfortunately, none of the six pillows included their own pillows, and none were the same as the two types studied in the previous experiments. Since no “roll-type” pillows were included, we are left without a practical comparison to the other studies.
The subjects in this experiment rated the six pillows for comfort, but were also asked about pain reduction and sleep improvement. The six pillows varied in their design, materials, and construction. One pillow stood out from the rest as the most comfortable, and also the most likely to offer headache relief. The pillow rated the “best pillow” by both men and women was made of soft polyurethane with two firm supports along the edges – one side high and the other side lower. This pillow supplied an easily-tolerated support for the neck, while the two different sides provided a choice of heights. The pillow that rated the lowest was the one which most closely resembled a roll pillow.
The investigators concluded that the best pillow for neck pain and the best sleeping pillow was a soft, not-too-high pillow with support for the cervical lordosis from a choice of firmer cores. Since the participants used each pillow for only three nights, and only comfort ratings were evaluated, no conclusions can be drawn from this study regarding the long-term effect of these pillows on pain or sleep patterns.
When people have chronic neck pain and/or cervicogenic headaches, a cervical support pillow should be considered. This is especially true when the pain is described as being worse in the morning and improving during the day. If sleep disturbances are part of the history, or with a history of injury to the neck, a comfortable, yet supportive bed pillow should be a part of treatment recommendations.
The right pillow will vary depending on the size of the person and on the amount of neck support that can be tolerated. Roll-type cervical pillows are initially uncomfortable, and may worsen some patients. A pillow which supplies a choice of sides is more likely to be helpful to a broader range of patients. It is also important to re-evaluate the pillows of your patients to ensure that new ones are purchased when the present pillows are found to have lost their original amount of support with time.
Recommending the use of a good cervical support pillow (and supplying one that has a good track record) can be one of the most useful adjunctive procedures to chiropractic treatment of neck pain. Patients appreciate the doctor who goes beyond the office setting to give advice regarding supportive home activities, and even specific sleep recommendations.
1. Lavin RA, Pappagallo M, Kuhlemeier KV. Cervical pain: a comparison of three pillows. Arch Phys Med Rehabil1997; 78:193-198.
2. Hagino C, Boscariol J, Dover L, LeTendre R, Wicks M. Before/after study to determine the effectiveness of the Align-right cylindrical cervical pillow in reducing chronic neck pain severity. J Manip Physiol Therap1998; 21:89-93.
3. Persson L, Moritz U. Neck support pillows: a comparative study. J Manip Physiol Therap1998; 21:237-240.
About The Author
Dr. Hyland is a 1980 graduate (cum laude) of Logan College of Chiropractic. He is a Diplomate of both the American Board of Chiropractic Orthopedists (DABCO) and the American Chiropractic Board of Radiology (DACBR). He is also a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS). A popular speaker, he is a postgraduate lecturer for several chiropractic colleges and a frequent contributor to chiropractic publications.