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Health & Exercise Forum

Choosing a Cervical Pillow: Part 1 of 2

Sep 22, 2014

Dr. Mackarey's Health & Exercise ForumChoosing a Cervical Pillow: Part 1 of 2

Are you one of the millions of people who suffer from chronic neck (cervical) pain and headaches? Did you ever wonder if your pillow is right for you? Studies on cervical or neck pillows have shown that those with chronic neck pain showed a significant reduction in neck pain and headaches when using a cervical pillow for four weeks when compared to the control group. However, there are many types of cervical pillows, and there is no single best choice for everyone. This column will give you an overview on the different types of cervical pillows, and hopefully this information will help guide you to the right pillow for your individual size and shape.


People who suffer from back and neck pain are always in search of something to lessen their pain and stiffness. Those with conditions such as arthritis, osteoporosis, or other bone and joint problems have great difficulty finding a comfortable position to sleep, and they often wake up with pain, stiffness and headaches in the morning. For these people, a cervical pillow may offer great comfort, because it is specifically designed to alleviate these symptoms.

Traditional pillows have drawbacks mainly because they are designed as a one-size-fits-all rectangle with greater emphasis placed on form than on function. Very often, a small-framed woman (5 feet tall, weighing 100 pounds) may find herself using the same style of pillow as a large male with the build of a football player (6 feet 5 inches weighing 350 pounds). It is obvious these two individuals have very different head, neck and shoulder sizes, and therefore they require two very different types of pillows.

Cervical or neck pillows come in a variety of shapes and sizes, and they are designed to provide support specifically to the cervical area of the spine. In theory, a cervical pillow attempts to align and support the natural shape of the neck while one is sleeping. Those suffering from neck or shoulder pain, degenerative cervical disc disease, or conditions such as arthritis or osteoporosis may find these pillows valuable.

Types of Pillows

Cervical pillows are made by many different manufactures and come in a variety of sizes, designs and shapes. Manufacturers claim that these pillows offer the benefits of increased circulation, improved breathing, reduced snoring and lessened neck and shoulder muscle pain and stiffness. One manufacturer, Tempur-PedicR (, boasts special memory foam technology that, they claim, offers unique and individualized support to accommodate the weight of every body type.

When selecting a cervical pillow, it is important to remember several things. First, know that most manufacturer claims are not subject to validation by independent research studies. Second, remember that, regardless of what a manufacturer states, no single pillow is right for every person. Third, realize that the most expensive option is not necessarily the best. Although many people consider Tempur-PedicR to be the leader in the field, they are costly, ranging from $89 to $349. If you shop around, you can find several companies that offer alternatives—both of similar and alternative designs—that may actually be a better fit for your neck and your budget. Other companies producing cervical pillows include CoreR, which offers support around the periphery with a special or dip (or “core”) in the middle in which your head rests (, TheraGearR, which offers a version of the orthopedic “bump” (, and BodyLineR, which offers a model with both a large and a small orthopedic “bump” in one pillow ( These pillows are economical, ranging in price from $30 to $60.

Regardless of what brand of pillow you select, it is likely to fall into one of the following three categories:

  1. Contour Pillows: (See photo below) Ergonomically contoured shapes support your head, neck and spine, and range from firm to medium-soft. These pillows are shaped with a hump or bump in the middle or on the edge, which is designed to fill in the gap between your neck and shoulder when lying on your back. Some offer a cut-out with a “butterfly” shape for the side-sleeper.
  2. Filled Pillows: Softer, shapeable filled pillows in more standard shapes, with gentle head and neck support for a range of sleep styles. These pillows look like a more traditional pillow, but they are made with a variety of materials that allow you to manipulate and shape the pillow to your own liking.
  3. Travel Pillows: (See photo below) Travel-size pillows deliver proper support and soothing comfort so you get more restful sleep while you’re traveling. These pillows vary in shape and size. For air travel, I am partial to the horseshoe collar style, which prevents your head from bobbing when reading and sleeping on long flights. The inflatable type is very convenient because it is portable, easy to pack, and it is available in airport stores or online at BrookstoneR at


It is important to remember that there is no one pillow fit for everyone—each person’s needs are unique. You should select your pillow type based on your body type, head size, shoulder width, favorite sleeping position, and medical conditions, such as neck or lower back pain, osteoarthritis, headaches, etc. When choosing a pillow, try to sample a cheaper version of the product when possible. For example, if you think you might like the “orthopedic bump” style from Tempur-PedicR that costs $200, consider trying the $50-60 version from TherGearR first. Better yet, if you have a friend or relative with a similar body type and problem who successfully uses a cervical pillow, try borrowing it! Finding the right pillow is a process of trial-and-error, so not get frustrated or give up. If you succeed in finding the right pillow for you, the result will be worth the search.

Read “Health & Exercise Forum” in the Scranton Times-Tribune every Monday. Next Week, Part II of II: Tips to Select a Good Cervical Pillow For You. This article is not intended as a substitute for medical treatment. If you have questions related to your medical condition, please contact your family physician. For further inquires related to this topic email:

Paul J. Mackarey PT, DHSc, OCS is a Doctor in Health Sciences specializing in orthopaedic and sports physical therapy. Dr. Mackarey is in private practice in downtown Scranton, PA and is an associate professor of clinical medicine at The Commonwealth Medical College.