You spent last night tossing and turning. And the night before. And the night before that. And despite buying a fancy, high-rated pillow online, you’re still having back and neck pain when you wake up in the morning. Could going pillow-free be a solution? We talked to two sleep experts to find out whether it might be better to sleep without a pillow.
What is the point of a pillow, anyway?
Pillows aren’t just poofy mounds of fluff that make your bed look cozy. A pillow actually has a few very important jobs. The first? “Keeping the spine alignment in different sleeping positions to prevent neck, shoulder or back pain,” says Dr. Venkata Buddharaju, sleep specialist, board certified sleep physician and author of Better Sleep, Happier Life. When you are lying on a flat surface, a pillow (or two) can help support the natural curve of your neck and keep it supported. And as you move positions throughout the night, a pillow will help you stay comfortable and prevent you from waking up as you readjust.
Pillows make sense if you think about it: “If you look at a person laying down, the shoulders are far wider than the head,” says sleep medicine expert Dr. Alex Dimitriu. “What this implies is that for anyone sleeping on their side, essentially, their shoulder gets in the way, and they need a place to rest their head so it doesn't ‘hang’ in the air.”
Another benefit of sleeping with a pillow? It can help you breathe more easily. “An advantage of pillows, besides comfort, is elevating the head above the body, so blood pools away from the head, and the airway can remain less congested,” adds Dr. Dimitriu.
Both of the experts we spoke to were very pro-pillow (although it might take a bit of experimentation before finding a supportive pillow that provides the right alignment for you). But if you’ve tried a bunch of pillows and are still experiencing back and neck pain, it might be tempting to ditch it for a night to see if you feel better. Does a pillow-free existence make sense for you? Well, that all depends on how you sleep.
If you’re a side sleeper…
Both of our sleep specialists agree: If you sleep on your side, it probably isn’t going to help much to sleep without a pillow, because of the amount of empty, unsupported space between your neck and shoulders while you snooze. Without a place to rest your head and neck, you’re likely to experience misalignment and soreness. In fact, Dr. Buddharaju recommends trying an even thicker pillow (either firm or soft, depending on your preference) if you sleep exclusively on your side.
If you’re a back sleeper…
People who sleep only on the back could try sleeping without a pillow, Dr. Dimitriu says (In this position, there’s less unsupported space between your neck and shoulders than if you sleep on your side.) But in addition to going completely pillow-free, it might also be worth trying a thinner pillow to fine-tune your alignment. “It helps to have someone take a look at your sleeping position to help identify the right set up,” he adds. So grab a partner, roommate or friend and have them scrutinize your sleeping position.
If you’re a stomach sleeper…
Sleep on your stomach? You’re in luck, friend, because sleeping without a pillow might definitely do you some good. Although Dr. Buddharaju argues that stomach sleeping is the “least preferred” sleeping position due to the way the neck is turned to the side, it is possible that a pillow-free mattress might provide a somewhat better alignment. “In the case of stomach sleepers, sometimes a pillow can cause them to uncomfortably flex their neck backwards during sleep, resulting in pain and muscle cramps in the back and the neck,” Dr. Dimitriu explains. Stomach sleepers might also benefit from a soft, slim pillow that keeps the head and neck in a lower position that’s closer to the mattress.