Is It Better to Sleep Without a Pillow for Neck Pain?

If you have neck pain, or perhaps a trapped nerve, you’ve likely tried everything to get a restful night’s sleep. One, two, or three pillows, and even none at all. But nothing is comfortable enough to make you stop testing the different alternatives.

You’ve tracked your sleep and it’s regularly interrupted by soreness in the neck area. Getting through that rough period where no matter how you sleep it hurts can be tough. So you want to know whether it’s going to be worth it in the end to sleep without a pillow for neck pain. To help you choose the way that’s right for you, we’ve put together this in-depth guide.

We aim to explain everything you need to know about sleeping without a pillow. There are some advantages, and there are some disadvantages. And if you do still want to sleep with a pillow, there’s information on that too, as well as some suggestions regarding which pillows are better.

So read on if you’d like to know more about changing your sleeping habits to make your stiff neck feel better again.

Is It Better for Your Neck to Sleep Without a Pillow?

You may have heard from a friend or colleague that they sleep without a pillow. They might have told you that it helps them to get 8 hours of sleep without fail. But why would it work? How would it help? Here’s a rundown of why sleeping with no pillow can change your posture, release tension, and provide a more relaxing night’s sleep.

Sleeping without a pillow is all about fixing your posture. It allows your neck to come to rest in a comfortable but natural position. Rather than being pushed up off the bed, your neck will stretch out and lie flatter.

Think of it this way. Everybody knows that sitting in the correct position is essential, especially if you spend all day at the office sitting behind a desk. What comes to mind when you think of the right sitting posture? A relatively straight back, upright neck, and square shoulders. You don’t just your neck out in front of you and roll your shoulders because that poor posture will make your muscles tense.

The same goes for the correct standing posture, and the same goes for proper sleeping posture, too. Sleeping with a pillow can lead to an incorrect posture while you’re lying down. Your head will be lifted too far from the surface of the mattress, and your head will be jutting upwards too much. This causes many problems.

Neck Muscles Become Strained

Sleeping with the incorrect pillow will cause your neck to become strained. This is because as the pillow holds your head so high above the surface of the mattress, your muscles have to stretch. Your neck will not sit in a comfortable, relaxed position. Instead, your neck muscles will be ‘active all night, struggling to hold your head in the place your pillow forces it to be in.

Sleeping without a pillow, by contrast, will allow your neck to rest. Your neck muscles will release their tension, and sit naturally instead. You may not notice at first since your neck muscles will still feel very tightly sprung. But over the course of a long night, that tension will ebb away, and you’ll wake up with less neck pain – at least, that’s the idea.

Why does my neck and shoulder hurt when I go to bed?

Won’t Be Able to Sleep

If your neck muscles are straining, you will feel that familiar tightness in your neck and shoulders. This tightness is enough to distract anybody from sleeping. Think of it this way: if your thigh muscles or your biceps were straining while you were trying to get some rest, you probably wouldn’t be able to get any sleep then, either.

Airways Will Be Restricted

If you sleep with one or more pillows, you might not notice, but your airways will be at least somewhat restricted. Try this exercise to see what we mean: try breathing through your nose in your natural sitting position (we’re assuming that you’re reading this sitting down!) Next, push your chin down onto your chest as far as you can, and try breathing through your nose then. Much harder, right?

The same concept applies when you’re trying to sleep. With one pillow, the effect isn’t as noticeable. But sleep with two or more, and you won’t be able to breathe freely in the night. This can lead to tension headaches and dizziness when you wake up in the morning. So not only are pillow sometimes bad for your neck, they’re bad for your health, too!

Of course, not everybody prefers sleeping without a pillow under the neck. For anybody experiencing a typical stiff neck and the pain that comes with that, this might just be your solution. But sleeping without a pillow isn’t just as simple as throwing your pillow away; so here are a few tips on learning to sleep without one.

How to Sleep Without a Pillow

It’s tempting to get started just by putting your pillow away and trying to get to sleep. In fact, that’s how most people will first try sleeping without a pillow: throwing it to the bedroom floor out of frustration at 3 am, and trying to get to sleep without it! But there are a few hints and tips that you can use to ease the transition.

  • Try sleeping with a folded sheet or towel under your head instead of a pillow. Depending on your posture, this might be preferable anyway, offering just enough comfort and height above the mattress while not forcing your neck muscles to strain.
  • If you want to progress to sleeping with no pillow at all, simply make the towel or sheet thinner each time you go to sleep at night. This gradual reduction will ease you into sleeping without a pillow, which is a better alternative to just diving right in when your spine and neck aren’t ready.
  • Bear in mind that just because you’ve gotten rid of your pillow, that doesn’t mean that you won’t necessarily be tensing your neck muscles. While you’re in bed, consciously try to relax. Get your body into a comfortable position, and let your neck rest wherever feels most natural.
  • If you still struggle with neck pain at this point, you can try some gentle stretches. These stretches are best done as part of your bedtime routine. So, when you’re brushing your teeth or putting your pajamas on, try rolling your neck and stretching it side to side. Don’t force yourself into any stretch that causes you pain, though.

Also, stress can cause your neck to hurt and this can stop you from sleeping. Perhaps you have tensions at home or work is stressful? You may need to deal with the cause before you can determine whether sleeping with or without pillows is likely to be the right option for you.

Will sleeping on a pillow at night hurt my neck?

What To Expect When You Sleep With No Pillow

Sleeping without a pillow is a big change, and it’s not one that you’ll necessarily like. But if you do try it, here’s what you should expect:

  • At first, it will probably be quite uncomfortable. This is natural because your spine and neck are probably getting used to being flat without a pillow for the first time. All through your life, you’ve trained your body to lie in what might be an uncomfortable position for you. So it’s only natural that it might be a little more uncomfortable than usual at first.
  • It will probably take just as long to get to sleep on the first night without a pillow, as it usually does with one. Again, this is because your body is getting used to your new way of sleeping. Over time, you will be able to fall asleep quicker and with less neck pain.
  • Once you’re asleep, you should hopefully notice that you don’t wake up as much when you’re sleeping without a pillow. This is because as the night wears on, your neck won’t be straining, so you won’t be in as much pain. This should hopefully allow you to stay asleep for longer, and experience deeper sleep too.
  • If all goes well, you should wake up in the morning with less pain in your neck than you did the morning before. Your neck should be less stiff, less tight, and less painful. If you don’t feel results straight away, you might just need a few more nights to get used to it. If not, then maybe sleeping without a pillow isn’t for you- but no need to worry, because there are superior quality pillows that might be able to help you instead.

So, we already know that sleeping without a pillow is now for everyone. Are there any disadvantages? Why might some people be better off with pillows after all?

What Are the Disadvantages of Sleeping Without a Pillow?

So, while sleeping without a pillow might have some benefits, it also has many downsides. You should consider these before you make your choice.

Here are just a few of the reasons why sleeping with pillows is still the number one choice for the majority of people:

  • If you sleep on your side, no pillow would be very uncomfortable. In fact, it would be practically impossible. The only alternative might be sleeping on your arm, but that won’t do your posture any favors.
  • It’s possible that your spine and posture wouldn’t benefit. If you have a large ‘behind, then the curvature of your spine would be too great if your head rested flat against the mattress. A pillow would keep your spine aligned in a more natural position.
  • Your mattress may not be any more comfortable than your pillow. Spring mattresses can be lumpy and poke into your back, and you might be better off not subjecting your neck and shoulders to that same awkward, uncomfortable feeling. Although, that being said, you really should replace your mattress anyway.
  • While neck pain can be caused by the neck jutting out too far, the natural shape of the neck isn’t flat, either. The neck, like the spine, has a natural C-shaped curvature. This curvature is based on the shape and strength of your bones, muscles, ligaments and so on- it’s a little different for everyone, but the general shape is the same. You might benefit more from finding a happy medium between pillows which are too large, and sleeping without any headrest at all.

So, sleeping without a pillow isn’t a magical cure-all for neck discomfort. Knowing that you might still want to sleep with pillows, but change the kind you use, or perhaps sleep with less. So what is the optimal amount of pillows that you should sleep with?

How to reduce neck pain while sleeping

How Many Pillows Should I Sleep on at Night?

The precise number of pillows you sleep with is up to you. Where you should draw the line, though, is on only sleeping with one pillow underneath your head or neck. Any more than one risks damaging your posture and damaging your neck.

You may want to sleep with more than one pillow if you’re a side sleeper. This is because when you sleep on your side, your head needs to be propped up more to maintain proper alignment with your body. But if you’re sleeping on your back or your stomach, one is more than enough.

The reason is that while you’re sleeping, your body returns to a natural, restful position. As you lie flat, gravity works to pull your body down evenly. When you stand up or sit in a chair, your body may lean to one side or stoop over unnecessarily, but this isn’t the case when you’re lying on your back. Too many or too few pillows underneath your neck can prevent your body from reaching this natural position. That’s why just one perfect pillow is the ideal number.

Alternative Pillows for Neck Pain

So rather than going without one, it might be best for you to do a little research into alternative pillows which might be better for you. The vast majority of people stick with basic fiber pillows which can be found at discount chain stores – but your neck deserves so much better.

Here are some examples of alternatives which can help with neck pain:

Memory Foam Pillows

You will no doubt have already heard of memory foam, if not given it a try. If you tried one yet, you might be missing out on your next perfect pillow. It is called ‘memory foam because it ‘remembers the shapes you press into it. Whereas a sponge springs back into shape, and whereas fiber gradually compresses and stays the shape you press it into, memory foam does neither.

Instead, memory foam will mold itself around whatever pressed into it, providing perfect comfort. When the pillow is left alone, it will gradually return to its old shape again. This mix of solidity and support makes memory foam an excellent option for anybody suffering from neck pain.

Feather or Down Pillows

Decades ago, almost all pillows were feather pillows. But now they’re the height of luxury, and most pillows are made of man-made fibers and cotton.

Feather or down pillows are the ultimate in softness and gentleness. These kinds of pillows are exceptionally comfortable, but do not provide the same reliable support that memory foam does; this could be exactly what you need to get rid of your neck pain. If the pillows you have now are solid and unyielding, a soft pillow like this one could be perfect for you.

Buckwheat Pillows

Buckwheat pillows use buckwheat husks as stuffing. And, believe it or not, they can be exceptionally comfortable. As you might expect, they’re far more robust than both feather and memory foam pillows. But that can be a good thing. If your pillows aren’t providing you with enough support and you’re waking up sore. As a result, a buckwheat pillow might just be the answer.

The first thing you should try is to sleep without any pillows at all. You never know, it might just work for you. Whether it will depend on your physical posture and shape, so it works for some people, but not for others.

But over time, your best bet is to find a comfortable pillow that suits your sleeping style. With a proper pillow, your neck will get the support that it needs, and your pain should gradually start to disappear. So your neck pain and your posture will thank you.

We also recommend using a white noise machine for enhancing the quality of your sleep.