Part of our series on getting better sleep.
The type of pillow you choose has a huge impact on your quality of sleep. Most people focus entirely on comfort and aren’t aware of the big impact that little details can have.
For side sleepers, choosing the right kind of shoulder pillow is incredibly important. Whether you need a pillow for shoulder pain or just need a little extra shoulder support, this guide can help.
Here’s what science has to say about choosing the best shoulder pillow.
Back vs. Side Sleeper Posture
When choosing a pillow, one of the first factors to consider is your sleep posture.
Research has shown that for side sleepers, using a thicker pillow to elevate the head leads to increased comfort and sleep quality.1Ergonomic approach for pillow concept design If you’re a side sleeper and your using a fairly regular-thickness pillow, that can contribute to neck and shoulder pain.
There isn’t a specific pillow thickness that will work for everyone. When choosing a pillow for side sleeping, you’ll want to figure out what height will keep you neck in a neutral position (in which the cervical spine isn’t flexed in any direction).
Although using a pillow with neck support is highly recommended for back sleepers, it’s not as vital for side sleepers.
For back sleepers, the curvature of neck support pillows is really helpful. That curve keeps the neck out of a forward flexed position.
If you do opt for a neck support pillow while sleeping on your side, you’ll want one with a very shallow curvature.
The Best Shoulder Pillows For Shoulder Pain
Shoulder pain is a big problem for many people who sleep on their sides. Even if the head and neck are in a comfortable position, the shoulder can end up contorted under the body. This can lead to pain and dysfunction in the shoulder and arm.
There are a few solutions for this.
One is to get a thick pillow with an overhang under which the arm can sit comfortably. These are often called orthopedics pillows. (And these pillows have an added bonus of working well for both back and side sleepers.)
This orthopedic pillow is a good option for most side sleepers. The butterfly shape of the pillow’s upper portion does a good job of keeping the head elevated with room for the arm to rest underneath.
Overhang Pillows for Shoulder Pain
For some people, however, a shoulder pillow with an overhang won’t be enough to alleviate shoulder or neck pain.
The next step up would be pillow with a cutout for the shoulder. To some people, these might seem like overkill. But for anyone desperately needing the best pillow for shoulder pain, they’re heaven-sent.
A shoulder pillow with a cutout can be a little spendy, but there are some fairly economical options.
This shoulder pain pillow is a solid choice. Not only does it feature that nifty cutout, but it’s also made with charcoal-infused memory foam to regulate odor and humidity.
Cutout Pillows for Shoulder Pain
The Best Shoulder Pillows For Neck Pain
As mentioned above, if a side sleeper uses a pillow that’s too thin (or too thick), they can develop neck pain. Using a shoulder support pillow can sometimes prevent or mitigate this pain.
Ideally, a side sleeper suffering from neck pain should use a shoulder support pillow that fulfills two criteria:
- First, the pillow should keep the neck in a comfortable, neutral position. That is, the head shouldn’t be tilted in any direction.
- Second, the arm should be able to rest in a comfortable position.
Different shoulder pillow designs try to tackle this problem in different ways. We’ve listed a few great options below.
Shoulder Pillows for Neck Pain
When it comes to choosing a shoulder pillow, it’s important to keep in mind the pros and cons of different materials.
Many people will default to cotton or polyester fill pillows, but those aren’t necessarily great options.
For example, several studies have demonstrated that latex pillows often outperform other options when it comes to pillow comfort, neck pain, and sleep quality.2Pillow use: The behaviour of cervical pain, sleep quality and pillow comfort in side sleepers
Part of this is likely due to the fact that latex is more supportive than other options, but it’s also partially because it keeps cooler. Cool pillows actually help to promote deeper sleep.3Improving the Quality of Sleep with an Optimal Pillow: A Randomized, Comparative Study (This is true for cool bedding in general, which is why some people opt for cooling blankets and other cooling sleep products.)
Latex Pillows for Shoulder Pain
Although it can be difficult to find latex shoulder pillows specifically, they’re definitely a good solution for many people. This latex pillow is an excellent choice. It comes with a soft bamboo fiber cover and features soothing egg-carton contours for extra comfort.
For more information on latex pillows in general, check out our latex pillow guide.
Behind latex, memory foam sits comfortably in second place.
Most research on pillow shape and material has found that, compared to traditional polyester or cotton filling, memory foam does well to promote deeper sleep.4Neck pain and pillows – A blinded study of the effect of pillows on non-specific neck pain, headache and sleep5Improving the Quality of Sleep with an Optimal Pillow: A Randomized, Comparative Study
Luckily, most shoulder pillows are made of memory foam, so this material is quite easy to find. We would recommend this memory foam shoulder pillow mentioned above.
For more information on memory foam pillows in general, visit our memory foam pillow guide.