Sleeping on your side can be a pain. Pain in your shoulder (see what we did there?) Ok, aside from that terrible joke, it’s true that sleeping on your side can cause stress and compression in your shoulder area. Translation? Pain.

If you sleep on your side or you experience shoulder pain for other reasons, your pillow can be the first defense in helping that pain disappear. You need a specific pillow for shoulder pain, particularly if you side sleep.

Let’s take a look at your unique needs as a side sleeper and see what we can do. We’ve put together a list of our top picks for pillows for shoulder pain. Plus, we’ve answered a few questions you may have about your shoulder pain itself.

What Causes Shoulder Pain?

The shoulder joint isn’t very stable. It’s the most mobile joint in the body, but that mobility comes with a price. It’s one of the most likely sites for stress-related injuries and traumatic pain.  All the muscles, tendons, and ligaments hold this mobile joint in place, so the pain could come from any one of these sources.

Shoulder pain can be sudden or gradual. Sudden pain is usually the result of a traumatic injury at the shoulder site. Maybe you tore your rotator cuff or pulled a ligament while working and now it hurts to put pressure on it.

Gradual pain might be the result of compression at the site like what happens when you sleep poorly supported. That joint takes the full weight of your body and bends inwards straining the tissues and muscles.

Some of you may have upgraded your mattress to something that allows your shoulder to sink further into the mattress and relieve that pressure, but if your pillow is awful, you may still be feeling the pain.

How Does a Pillow Help Shoulder Pain?

Your mattress should have a contouring layer that allows your broadest points to sink further into the bed while filling in around gaps such as your waist. You won’t put as much compression on your shoulder as you sleep.

A pillow for shoulder pain should properly support your head and neck. It keeps your spine aligned. When your spine is straight, your body lifts up, pulling weight off the shoulder and creating a supportive sleep surface.

Side sleepers need a pillow thick enough to accommodate the difference between the depth of the shoulder and the depth of the neck and head. If you don’t sleep on your side, you still need a pillow that can mold to your body.

A more comfortable pillow can discourage tossing and turning. Cradling the head and neck encourages you to find a comfortable spot and stay there.

What Should I Look For?

A proper pillow should touch the top of your shoulder and remain directly underneath your head and neck. It should be thick enough to lift your head into the same alignment you’d have while upright.

If you’re a side sleeper, you’ll probably need a high loft (or depth) of pillow. Back sleepers can use a low to medium loft while stomach sleepers need an extra low to low loft. If the pillow is too low, it strains the upper part of your shoulder as your body struggles to hold your head. If it’s too high, it can create tension and cramping as you compress that shoulder.

Your pillow should be small enough that you can place it an inch or two away from the edge of the bed. Bed edges are more firm than the middle, and you don’t want any accidental tension. The pillow should be big enough to provide enough coverage for your entire head and neck.

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How Long Do Pillows Last?

The general recommendation is to replace your pillow every two to three years as the filling compresses and loses support. Side sleepers may find that this happens sooner because of the amount of loft needed for support.

Replace the pillow when there are obvious lumps or signs of wear and tear. You should also reconsider your pillow when you replace your mattress. Mattresses don’t all provide the same type of support or feeling so your old pillow may not work anymore.

A Note About Price

Some of the pillows on the list may seem a little expensive. Before you get in your feelings, we understand that spending a lot on a pillow isn’t how people dream of spending their money. However, a pillow can be the difference between a fully aligned spine and a crick in your neck that won’t go away.

Pillows take a beating. Cheap pillows may not offer the kind of support you need in the first place, and if they do, they may not hold their shape. Bargain hunting a pillow could lead to disappointment in a few months when it no longer performs its job.

A slightly bigger investment in a pillow sometimes means you get a pillow life and it doesn’t begin to lose its shape after a few nights of sleep. You don’t have to drop serious cash on a pillow, but we think you might be pleasantly surprised if you keep an open mind about pillows and pricing.

The List

And now without further ado, our top picks for the best pillow for shoulder pain. Let’s get you back to a comfortable night with no pain in the morning.

Muse Pillow – Our Top Pick

The Muse pillow is a breathable, cooling pillow designed to support without storing heat in the core of the pillow. It’s customizable, and you can mold it into your shoulder and neck for comfort.

The cover materials use cool wire material. The fabric actively wicks away heat and moisture, so you don’t toss and turn looking for a cool spot. You can remove it for easier cleaning to keep things hygienic.

The top layer is shredded memory foam. It gives you that classic pillow feeling with plenty of cushion and room for your head to sink into the material. The bottom layer is a solid foam that helps keep your head from falling all the way to the bottom of the pillow.

You can choose between four different lofts. The extra low is four inches and great for stomach sleepers. Low is five inches, and the medium is six inches. These are suitable for back sleepers and side sleepers with narrow shoulders respectively. The highest loft, seven inches, is best for side sleepers with broad shoulders requiring a lot of support.

If you aren’t sure what loft would be best, they do have a quiz on their pillow page to help you decide. You have 120 nights to try your pillow out before deciding if it’s the right one. We recommend keeping it for a least a few weeks so that your body has time to adjust and pain can subside. If you’ve just upgraded your mattress, this is especially true.

It comes with a three-year warranty to cover any defects. Make sure you don’t use the pillow for anything except its intended purpose. Just contact the company if you notice any lumps or abnormal wear and tear.

The pillow doesn’t come compressed, so you don’t have to wait for it to inflate before use. Just unpack it from the box and remove the plastic. It may have a small odor, but if you let it air out for a few hours, it should be fine.

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Nest Easy Breather Pillow – Runner-Up

Nest’s pillow uses a breathable cover material with filling that mimics the feeling of down or down alternatives. It molds well and puts you in a better position to open your airways. It’s available in standard, queen, and king sizes.

The cover material is something called Tencel. Tencel is more breathable than cotton but just as soft as other types of cover materials. It wicks heat and moisture away from the head and neck, so you don’t toss and turn looking for a cool spot.

The inner materials are shredded memory foam. You can unzip the cover to remove some of the filling to make it suitable for your particular sleep position. Just take out the filling until it suits you. It’s all shredded foam, so you’re able to mold it underneath your neck and head to suit your particular sleeping position. It’s also suitable for combination sleepers.

There’s no inner liner, and neither the filling or the cover materials are machine washable. However, you can spot clean it to prevent staining. The filling is certified by CertiPur-US, but it will have some small odor from the memory foam initially. Just allow it to air out well before using.

The company gives you 100 nights to try everything out. Give it a few weeks or so to figure out if it’s helping your pain. If you’ve recently upgraded your mattress as well, this is especially important.

Nest covers their pillows for their lifetime. If you notice anything like lumps, loss of support, or abnormal wear and tear the company will replace it. Make sure you aren’t using the pillow for anything that doesn’t fall into its usual job description, or you may accidentally void the warranty.

Honorable Mention

If you fall into one of these specific categories, you may want to consider one of the following pillows. Our two top picks are suitable for a variety of sleepers, but you may need something more specific.

Coop Home Goods Original – Best Budget Option

Coop Home Goods’ original pillow is a shredded memory foam fill with both a liner and a zippered cover. It’s adjustable and molds well underneath your head and neck.

The pillowcase is a blend of bamboo and rayon. These materials are ultra soft and allow maximum airflow through the pillow. They wick heat and moisture away from your head and neck, so you aren’t always searching for a cool spot.

The filling is CertiPur-US certified memory foam cross cut with microfiber. It does have a slight smell when you unwrap it, but it has low VOCs, so the smell shouldn’t stick around long. Air moves efficiently through the pillow, keeping it cool. You can adjust the fill to give you more or less loft depending on what your ideal sleep position is.

The company gives you 100 nights to try out the new pillow before you decide if it’s the right one for you or not. Make sure you give it at least 30 nights before deciding, especially if you’ve recently upgraded your mattress as well. Your body can adjust, and the pillow can break in a little.

Coop Home Goods’ pillows are covered by a five-year warranty against mattress defects. If you notice any abnormal wear and tear or you see any lack of support, you can get the company to fix it. Make sure you use the pillow only for its intended purpose.

The pillow is a little over half the cost of our top two pillows, which may still seem expensive if you’re used to cheap pillows at a big box store. However, it will hold its shape and support a lot better than those ultra-cheap pillows with poly-fill interiors.

Purple – Best For Overall Pressure Relief

The Purple mattress is known for ultimate pressure relief for side sleepers. Their pillow uses the same hyperelastic polymer material to create a surface area that stays supportive underneath your neck while conforming well to your head. It uses the same material and construction as their mattress’s first layer to produce nearly zero pressure.

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The material is arranged into little triangle grids. This material takes the weight of your head and neck and distributes it throughout the pillow for more comfortable sleep. It also keeps air flow at a maximum, so you don’t toss and turn looking for a cool spot.

The grid never gets lumpy. It never needs fluffing. It may take some getting used to because it’s a lot heavier than other pillows at nearly ten pounds. The center gives way underneath your head while the edges keep their support. You never have to readjust the pillow underneath you.

There’s no shipping cost, and you can try it out for 100 nights. Make sure you give the pillow at least 30 nights before deciding if it’s the right one for you, especially if you’ve changed your mattress recently. Your body needs time to adjust to something this different than what you’re used to, so you want to give it plenty of time to get used to things.

It’s covered by a one year warranty against defects. If you notice cracks in the material or other types of defects, you can get a replacement from Purple. Make sure you’re using the pillow for its intended use, so you don’t accidentally void the warranty (no to the death pillow fights, ok?)

Bear Pillow – Best For Athletes

Bear mattresses are made for better recovery and more restful sleep. The pillow is excellent for side sleepers and combination sleepers who may have some pain from injury or exercise strains.

The cover materials are what Bear calls “ice fabric,” a cool to the touch material that wicks heat and moisture away from your head and neck throughout the night. If you’re sleeping cooler, you toss and turn less. That lessens the risk you’ll further strain your shoulder as you toss and turn during the night.

The interior is something called Loft-X foam. It’s a medium firm and good for combination sleepers. It’s open cell, so you’re continually pushing air through the pillow as you sleep. This works with the cover material to cool the pillow.

The sides of the pillow are mesh panels to help with this air flow. The interior and exterior are antimicrobial and naturally hypoallergenic. These components reduce the amount of time you spend moving around, giving your shoulder time to rest and heal.

The company gives you 100 nights to try the pillow out to see if it’s the right one. Make sure to give it a few weeks so you can decide if it’s really helping. Your body needs time to adjust, especially if you’ve also upgraded your mattress. Your pillow can break in a little and old pain can subside.

The pillow is covered by a two-year warranty against mattress defects. Things like abnormal sagging, loss of support, or weird wear and tear qualify for a new pillow. Make sure you use the pillow only for its intended purpose.

Final Thoughts

Your shoulder pain can be a symptom of injury or just compression from night after night of trying to sleep improperly supported. A good pillow keeps your head and neck in the same line as when you’re upright, so you can sleep better and wake up with less pain.

You should consider replacing your pillow after every mattress purchase and at least every two or three years. Pillows don’t have the same lifespan as a mattress, so they’ll begin to show wear and tear a lot sooner. Getting one that’s well made can extend its life and make sure you don’t lose support too soon.

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