If you sometimes wake up with a sore, stiff or aching neck, you’re not alone. Neck pain is the third leading cause of chronic pain, and more than a quarter of Americans have experienced some level of neck discomfort, according to the American Osteopathic Association.

The culprit could be your pillow. David Foster, DC, a New Jersey-based chiropractor, says sleeping on a pillow that doesn’t provide proper support creates stress throughout the body, particularly on the tendons, ligaments and muscles in the neck, shoulders and upper back.

Since you spend 33 percent of your life asleep, taking the time to find the right pillow could mean the difference between sleepless nights and pain-free days.

What should you look for? “The right pillow decreases stress on the spine by providing support to the neck,” says Foster. When resting your head on a pillow, he says to draw an imaginary line from the little knob in the back of your head to the coccyx bone. “Your spine should be in that alignment in whatever position you sleep,” he says.

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Match your pillow to your sleep style

  • Back sleepers: When lying on your back, your head and neck should be level with your upper back and spine. “A pillow that is too large will force your chin to your chest, putting your neck and spine out of alignment,” says Foster.
  • Side sleepers: Your head and neck should be level with your mid and lower spine. If the pillow puts your head on an angle, it’s too high.
  • Stomach sleepers: While most experts agree that sleeping on your stomach provides the least support, if that’s the only way for you to catch some Z’s, you’re best off with a flat pillow or resting your head directly on the mattress. “The more your neck is torqued from being turned to the side, the more stress it creates on the body,” says Foster.  

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Tips for managing that pain in your neck

The most common complaint Foster hears from patients is the “crick” in the neck. “What they are experiencing is muscle spasm,” he explained. “People don’t realize that there are multiple layers of muscles in the neck. When you sleep incorrectly, instead of being in a relaxed state the muscles are in a working state.”

Foster says in order to relieve or avoid neck pain while sleeping — and until you find the perfect pillow — he sometimes recommends sleeping with a rolled towel under the neck. This helps recreate the slight natural curve the neck takes to support your head while standing. The right pillow maintains that curve by filling the gap between the neck and shoulder.

Filler and firmness options

Soft, medium, firm, extra-firm. Synthetic, feather, down, memory foam, latex, buckwheat. There are a myriad of pillow options. The type of pillow you choose comes down to personal preference and special needs. Allergy sufferers, for instance, may opt for a hypoallergenic pillow. For snorers, a pillow that supports the head well will improve sleeping posture and help keep airways open.

When it’s time to part ways

After time, even the perfect pillow will lose its shape and become a breeding ground for dust mites and allergens. Experts recommend replacing your pillow every one to three years, depending on the quality. And The Better Sleep Council suggests replacing your pillow if it no longer feels the way it did when first purchased, shows visible signs of dirt or has lumps and bumps.

When you do find that perfect pillow, you may want to pick up an extra so you never need be without the one you love. 

Diana St. Lifer is a certified professional life coach and freelance writer.