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The Best Pillows for Back Sleepers

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Written by: Alex Savy
Read 19 minLast updated on May 27, 2021

If you sleep on your back, you are among only 10 percent of people who do so. This makes it quite tricky to shop for a suitable pillow, as most pillows are not made to suit your sleeping style. In this article, I will list five of the best pillows for back sleepers, and I want to show you which features make for an appropriate pillow so you can pick your own.

A Quick Preview

Dual Comfort Pillow by Amerisleep
Best Overall - Editor’s Choice

Dual Comfort Pillow by Amerisleep
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Saatva Memory Foam Pillow
Best Shape Maintenance for Strong Neck Support

Saatva Memory Foam Pillow
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Zoma Sports Pillow
Best Customizability to Fit Your Head Shape

Zoma Sports Pillow
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GhostBed Memory Foam GhostPillow
Best Value for Strong Head Support

GhostBed Memory Foam GhostPillow
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Nolah Airfiber Pillow
Best for That Plush Downy Feel

Nolah Airfiber Pillow
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Our Reviews of 5 Best Pillows for Back Sleepers

Best Overall - Editor’s Choice — Dual Comfort Pillow by Amerisleep

Dual Comfort Pillow by Amerisleep

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Highlights

  • Two distinct sides for combination back and side sleepers.
  • The perfect research-recommended height for back sleeping. 
  • An incredible 10-year warranty.

This pillow is made of the manufacturer’s own patented memory foam with built-in cooling channels to keep it cool for hot sleepers. 

One of the most significant benefits is that one side is firm for side sleepers who need distance between their heads and the mattress, while the other side is plush for back sleepers who need their heads to sink closer to the mattress to keep their spines straight. This makes it the perfect pillow if you don’t spend the entire night in the same position, which is frankly true for most of us who suffer from numbness if we don’t move.

In addition to a six-inch-thick version which has almost become the standard for pillows, it also comes in the perfect five-inch-thick version that a study in the European Journal of Integrative Medicine has recommended for back sleeping with great sleep quality and without neck pain.(1)

While the foam in so many pillows flatten or disintegrate within the first five years, as we all can testify before grudgingly making our next purchase, this one comes with a generous 10-year warranty.

Best Shape Maintenance for Strong Neck SupportSaatva Memory Foam Pillow

Saatva Memory Foam Pillow

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Highlights

  • Two-layered design to ensure softness without loss of shape for good neck support.
  • Top-quality memory foam to keep your spine supported and aligned.
  • Several mechanisms to prevent overheating.

It’s not ideal for a pillow’s firmness to determine how far the back of your head is from the mattress, as this may push your head forward and your spine out of alignment. While the outer layer of this pillow is made of solid memory foam, the core is made of shredded foam. Combined, these layers allow your head to sink closer to the mattress while still being well supported by the outer layer. A 2009 study in Advances in Physiotherapy recommends precisely a combination of softness and good support.(2)

If this pillow seems on the pricey side, it is because it is made of quality memory foam that does not fall flat when you rest your head on it. A flat pillow pulls your head backwards and is likely to cause neck pain as a result. That’s why no scientific studies recommend down pillows, as they have the tendency to collapse.

Between the gel-infused core, the graphite-infused outer layer, and the breathable cotton cover, it works hard on keeping you cool during the night. A recent study in Science Advances shows that people sleep poorly during summer when they struggle to keep the temperature down.(3)

Best Customizability to Fit Your Head Shape — Zoma Sports Pillow

Zoma Pillow

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Highlights

  • Shredded foam and polyester for great customizability.
  • Low pressure to relieve aches and pains.
  • Both the cover and core are machine washable.

This pillow has a core that is made of shredded foam and polyester that you can shape whichever way you wish. Different people have differently shaped necks, so why should we all sleep on pillows that have the same shape? Moreover, while some people feel comfortable if only their heads are on the pillow, others prefer that the pillow extends below their necks too. A pillow with a shredded filling, like this one, allows you to achieve the ideal shape for your unique shape.

Because it is not made of a very firm material like latex or even dense foam, it feels plush against your neck and head. This lack of high-pressure contact can help if you are an athlete with painfully overworked neck muscles, or if you are vulnerable to headaches.

It is the easiest pillow on this list to clean, the only one that is machine washable, and it carries an impressive 10-year warranty.

And while its six-inch thickness makes it a bit high for back sleepers, you will see in the research I’ll describe below that this is precisely what you need if you have chronic heartburn or obstructive sleep apnea.

Best Value for Strong Head Support — GhostBed Memory Foam GhostPillow

GhostPillow

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Highlights

  • The perfect height for back sleepers.
  • Gel memory foam for firm neck support.
  • Low price and long trial period.

When you rest your head on this pillow, it is around four to five inches thick. This makes this pillow another one on this list that is the perfect research-backed height for back sleeping.(1) Pillows that are higher bend your spine forward at your neck, which will cause neck pain if it is contorted like this for a third of your day. 

If you don’t like the feeling of your head sinking into the mattress on a soft pillow, this one’s gel memory foam feels quite firm. At its relatively low height, this firmness is essential to prevent your neck from bending backwards while lying on your back.

While this pillow is not as cheap as those you can find at your local discount department store or supermarket, it is a good trade-off between price and quality. It includes several temperature regulation mechanisms to prevent you from overheating during the night, the foam is good enough to remain firm when you lie on it, and it also comes with a 101-day trial period and a five-year warranty, none of which you will find in your cheapest varieties.

Best for That Plush Downy Feel — Nolah Airfiber Pillow

Nolah Airfiber Pillow

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Highlights

  • A plush downy feel without the old down pillow drawbacks.
  • Thick enough for back sleeping.
  • Good price for the quality.

If you are still old-school enough to like a pillow that feels like a pillow, this one is Nolah’s down-alternative model that is filled with small foam and polyester fibers. You will be surprised how soft it is and how much it feels like the old down models without making you sneeze all night because of the goose feathers. In fact, when lying on your back, you sink so deeply into it that you can rest your cheek on the pillow on both sides of your face while barely turning your head.

Notwithstanding the way your head sinks into this beautifully soft pillow, it starts with enough height so that the weight of your head doesn’t collapse it all the way to the mattress and thereby causes your neck to bend backwards. This is, thus, a great way to have enough height for back sleeping without giving up on the luxuriousness of feeling that your head is floating on the clouds.

It costs approximately the same as the GhostBed GhostPillow does, and comes with a 120-day trial period for great value.

Why is a Specialized Back Sleeping Pillow Important?

If you're wondering why it's important to have a pillow that accommodates back sleeping specifically, the above pillow advantages go a long way towards explaining it.

Your spine has a natural curve that must be maintained while you are asleep.

  1. Your cervical Spine curves forward. This is the part that connects to your skull at the top and your upper back at shoulder level at the bottom.
  2. Your Thoracic Spine curves slightly backward. This is your upper back between your cervical spine at the top and your lumbar spine at the bottom.
  3. Your lumbar spine curves forward. This is your lower back.

Why should anyone know this outside biology class?

Because this is the curve your spine should maintain whether you are standing, sitting, or lying down, such as when sleeping on your back. If you flatten out or exaggerate these curves by the use of wrong pillows, for example, you will suffer neck or back pain because you will strain the muscles and joints that keep these natural curves in place.

The point is this.

The best pillow for back sleeping helps your cervical spine to curve slightly forward, as it should. Lying with your head flat on the mattress forces this curve backward, and sleeping on a pillow that is too high forces it too far forward. 

If you want to support the curve in your lumbar spine as well, as you ideally should, you should also place a pillow below your knees while you are lying on your back. This should be approximately the same height as the one below your head. A cylindrical roll pillow is perfect here.

How to Choose the Best Pillow for Back Sleeping

Accordingly, the best pillows for back sleepers should include the following characteristics:

  • It should be the right height for spinal curvature, also called loft. In February 2021, scientists from Utica College in New York published an article in the European Journal of Integrative Medicine in which they reviewed already existing literature on ideal pillow characteristics. They found that most previous studies had concluded that an approximate height between 2.7 and 4.3 inches was ideal to improve sleep quality and reduce neck pain in back sleepers with some leeway allowed each way.(1)
  • It should be firm enough to support your neck, but soft enough to be comfortable. A 1998 study in the Journal of Manipulative and Physiological Therapeutics gave 37 hospital employees and 18 neck pain patients a series of pillows to sleep on for three weeks each. The pillows that were soft but still had two firmer supporting materials (like firm foam or latex) for good shape maintenance and neck support received the highest ratings.(4) This was true for sleepers in all positions.
  • It should have a flat lower middle and higher side panels, or alternatively one firm and one soft side to accommodate back and sighed combination sleepers, as the latter require higher pillows.(1) That's how you can have the best pillow for back and combination sleepers rolled into one.
  • If you are a heavy snorer or if you +have sleep apnea, a condition in which your upper airway collapses and obstructs your breathing during the night, you should ideally not sleep on your back. But if you can't unlearn that habit, a study published in a 1997 edition of the Journal Cranio recommends that you use, not only a pillow under your head, but also under your upper back and shoulders to elevate your upper body by around 30 percent.(5) Harvard health recommends the same for people who suffer from chronic heartburn.(6)
  • It should have a shape that makes you feel comfortable. Normal pillows tend to be rectangular, while functional pillows can take other shapes. Some have higher sides than centers that can make them the best pillows for combination sleepers, some taper off on the sides that can make them the best pillows for shoulder pain, roll pillows bulge below the neck for extra neck support, and so forth. Some of our favorites are functional pillows, and a study conducted in January 2020 on Korean sleepers found that they rated functional pillows more highly on comfort, support, and appropriate height.(7) But whether you benefit from them or not is something that only you can decide, which is why long trial periods are important. Pillows made of shredded material also allow you to make your own shapes, which is why we have one among our favorites.
  • It should come at a decent price, but doesn't have to break the bank. Many studies have proved that the cheapest down and foam pillows caused back and neck pain and poor sleep because they are made of poor-quality materials, so you should probably avoid those, but you don't have to spend hundreds of dollars either. A 2014 study in the Tohoku journal of experimental medicine showed that specialized orthopedic pillows were better than fairly cheap memory foam and down pillows at maintaining the right spinal curve, but our favorites, for example, are much better quality than the ones they tested the orthopedic pillows against.(8) So, you don't have to bankrupt yourself.

FAQ

Which Pillow Material is Best for Back Sleepers?

It really doesn't matter, so long as the pillow meets the conditions listed above. 

Latex stays firm for longer than memory foam does, and memory foam stays firmer for longer than feathers and artificial down do.

So, to maintain the right height and firmness, feather and artificial down pillows may have to be replaced sooner than foam and latex pillows do. But if you like the feel of down, you can just accept the more frequent replacements as part of the comfortable down deal.

Generally speaking, memory foam is a good trade-off between quality and price, which is why most of our favorite pillows are made of it.

That's not all.

There are also real down pillows, which last longer than artificial down ones do, but they are very expensive and, if you love animals, you might not enjoy the idea of resting your head on dozens of dead geese and ducks.

Buckwheat pillows are relatively cheap and their height or loft is perfectly adjustable by moving the buckwheat around the bag, but they require constant fluffing up to maintain the support below your neck and head, and many sleepers don't like the beanbag effect of moving particles when they move their heads during the night.

But it gets better.

Water pillows are fairly expensive and don't last very long, and for this reason they are not extremely widely available.

But there is at least one study in the Archives of Physical Medicine that compared them with the research subjects' own choice of pillow and a roll pillow. The subjects, all of whom had neck pain with no identifiable cause, slept on their own pillows for one week, and then on the other two pillows for two weeks each. A roll pillow is one surgically designed to fit below your neck for extra neck support against pain. 

They reported that the water-based pillow helped them to sleep better and reduced their neck pain, especially in the mornings.(9)

Therefore, if you don't mind the price and lack of durability, buy one of these, fill it with water until it is four inches high, and it can be a great pillow for back sleeping.

Isn't My $10 Walmart Pillow Good Enough for Back Sleepers?

Probably not, and scientists once illustrated this beautifully in a study in the journal Physiotherapy Canada.

They recruited 106 people and asked them to sleep on a different pillow each week. One of these pillows was their own, while five others were provided by the researchers.

By the end of the six weeks, the scientists asked them to rate the six pillows on neck stiffness, sleep quality, and comfort.

Can you guess what they found?

Interestingly, the participants' rated their own pillows to be the worst of the six, complaining of frequent waking, fatigue, discomfort, neck stiffness, and shoulder pain when they slept on them.(10)

So who on earth would choose an uncomfortable pillow for themselves?

According to this study, obviously, most of us do.

Since the researchers found the most complaints with feather pillows, which are the cheapest pillows, they speculated that people routinely bought pillows that were too cheap.

How Often Should Back Sleepers Replace Their Pillows?

The Better Sleep Council recommends that we replace our pillows every 2.8 years, no matter our favorite sleeping position.(11) However, it really depends on the quality of the materials since, to state the obvious, quality pillows will last longer than ones made from the cheapest materials.

Remember the two-to-five-inch rule for back sleepers and allow the firmness and height of the pillow to be your guide. If it is flatter than two inches with your head resting on it, it needs to be replaced.

Conclusion

Loft, firmness, shape, trial period, and price, if possible in that order, should inform your choice of new pillow. It’s the loft and firmness that determine whether your spine remains correctly curved while you’re lying down. It’s the shape that determines whether the pillow is comfortable, and the trial period that allows you to ensure that it is. The importance of the price is self-evident.

That’s why we like the Amerisleep Dual Comfort Pillow. It has the correct loft of five inches, plus a soft side that allows your head to sink down further if you feel it’s too high. And if you want to lie on your side, just flip it over to the firm side and it will be high enough for comfortable side sleeping too. And while the price is on the high side, you do have a 10-year warranty in case something goes wrong.

Do you sleep on your back and are you aware of some aspect the scientists have missed? Let us know and help your fellow back sleepers pick the most comfortable and beneficial ones out there.

References:

  1. Ahmed Radwan et al. (February 2021). Effect of Different Pillow Designs on Promoting Sleep Comfort, Quality, & Spinal Alignment: A Systematic Review. Journal of Integrative Medicine. Retrieved from: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S1876382020314505#!
  2. Liselott Persson (July 11, 2009). Neck Pain and Pillows - A Blinded Study of the Effect of Pillows on Non-Specific Neck Pain, Headache and Sleep. Advances in Physiotherapy. Retrieved from: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/14038190600780239
  3. Nick Obradovich et al. (May, 2017). Nighttime Temperature and Human Sleep Loss in a Changing Climate. Science Advances. Retrieved from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5446217/
  4. Liselott Persson et al. (May 1998). Neck Support Pillows: A Comparative Study. Journal of Manipulative and Physiological Therapeutics. Retrieved from: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/9608378/
  5. H.W. Makofsky et al. (January, 1997). Snoring and Obstructive Sleep Apnea: Does Head Posture Play a Role? Journal Cranio: The Journal of Craniomandibular Practice. Retrieved from: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/9586490/
  6. Harvard Health (February 23, 2021). Is your pillow hurting your health? Retrieved from: https://www.health.harvard.edu/pain/is-your-pillow-hurting-your-health
  7. Juhyun Son et al. (January 1, 2020). A Survey of Koreans on Sleep Habits and Sleeping Symptoms Relating to Pillow Comfort and Support. International journal of environmental research and public health. Retrieved from: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/31906363/
  8. Mi Yang Jeon et al. (July, 2014). Improving the Quality of Sleep with an Optimal Pillow: A Randomized, Comparative Study. The Tohoku journal of experimental medicine. Retrieved from: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/25008402/
  9. R.A. Lavin et al. (1997). Cervical pain: A Comparison of Three Pillows. Archives of Physical Medicine. Retrieved from: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/9041902/
  10. Susan J. Gordon (April 13, 2011). Your Pillow May Not Guarantee a Good Night's Sleep or Symptom-Free Waking. Physiotherapy Canada. Retrieved from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3076923/
  11. Better Sleep Council (February 10, 2018). Pillow Shopping Guide. Retrieved from: https://bettersleep.org/blog/pillow-shopping-guide/

Additional Resources 

 

Our research

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