Functional Pillow

Can A Functional Pillow Help With Sleep, Neck & Shoulder Pain?

A functional type pillow uses a large height difference between the side and center areas. Most people use a standard type pillow. However, the number of individuals that complain of sleep disorders is increasing, and sleep is approximately 1/3rd in the lifespan of humans.[1]

Sleep is a factor which allows individuals to recover both psychologically and physically for preparation of the next day [2]. The importance of getting proper sleep is increasingly attracting attention. Poor sleep quality sleep decreases the amount of sleep, pain, as well as breathing problems [3–5].

functional pillow

The use of proper pillows as sleeping accessories is an ideal way to improve sleep quality. In seeking a functional pillow, the use is intended to support the head in a proper position, thus avoiding complications like neck stiffness, pain and physical fatigue that can reduce sleep quality.

Interest in pillows as an aid for restful sleep has produced a variety of pillow types with various materials, heights, and sizes. In order to accommodate different body types, a functional pillow can provide better neck comfort, as well as head, neck and shoulder support than those using other pillow types.[6]

Since comfort of changing positions is an important factor; mainly because the width of the shoulders require a higher height in a side sleeping position, this type of pillow helps maintain the proper ergonomic relationship between back and side sleeping, allowing the head, neck and shoulder to remain more neutrally oriented, thus minimizing postural deviational stress to the musculoskeletal system.

The focus on specific neck or cervical pillows is increasing due to reports of potential benefits in many areas of concern.

A pillow that maintains the correct cervical curve of the neck can decrease headaches and neck pain.[7] Pillows with a higher side height can improve sleep quality.[8] Without the proper pillow height when back sleeping, a higher height increases the the average and highest pressure on the head and cervical spine.[9] By combining a standard, cervical and shoulder pillow, a proper combination of head, neck and shoulder support can be achieved to improve sleep quality.[10]

Benefits Of A Functional Pillow

In a comparative study, the authors state, “Participants who used a regular-type pillow had poorer satisfaction on multiple comfort and support factors (support, comfort, height suitability, shape suitability) compared with those who used a functional-type pillow. Less head fatigue, less neck fatigue and less shoulder pain had significant effects on sleep quality.”[6]


Because this type of pillow is structured different than a regular type pillow, it may take a week or two to get accustomed to it. Changing positions takes some time getting used to because there are particular sections of the pillow for both back and side sleeping. When using this pillow for neck pain, shoulder pain, or postural restoration, this is a small trade-off for relief and long term results. They can also be used as a combination pillow strategy for neck pain, aid in correction of forward head posture and a straight or military neck.


Generally, pillows made of latex of memory foam feel more comfortable. However, there are many types of latex and Talalay is the best type. Latex is proven for the best material used in pillows for pain reduction. For memory foam, it is difficult to ascertain if it is soft, medium, or firm. Generally, these types of functional pillows require a medium/firm material to keep it’s shape. If you want a higher height for side sleeping, you do not want it to compress so much that you lose the benefits of a consistent height. The new ultimate pillow tries to reach a compromise, but is limited in sizing.

It is always best to have a measuring system and different heights for the best fit, like the Therapeutic Pillow or the Talalay Latex Orthopedic Pillow. There are memory foam ones that do not have size variations and are inexpensive, usually made in China. You do get what you pay for. Latex will last longer than memory foam and even longer than standard foam. Therapeutic made in Canada and Latex Orthopedic Pillow Made in U.S.A.

ergonomic pillows at amazon

1. Ann Occup Environ Med v.28(1); 2016
2. J Adv Nurs. 1995 Jun;21(6):1101-9.
3. J Psychosom Res. 1997 Jun;42(6):583-96.
4. Sleep Health. 2017 Feb;3(1):6-19.
5. Sleep Health. 2018 Feb;4(1):56-62
6. Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2020 Jan 1;17(1)
7. Adv. Physiother. 2006, 8, 122–127.
8. Appl. Ergon. 2016, 52, 142–150
9. PeerJ. 2016 Aug 31;4:e2397
10. J Chiropr Med. 2011 Dec;10(4):229-39

Author Bio

Stephen Ornstein, D.C. has treated thousands of neck, shoulder and back conditions since graduating Sherman Chiropractic College in 1987 and during his involvement in Martial Arts. He holds certifications as a Peer Review Consultant from New York Chiropractic College, Physiological Therapeutics from National Chiropractic College, Modic Antibiotic Spinal Therapy from Dr. Hanne Albert, PT., MPH., Ph.D., Myofascial Release Techniques from Logan Chiropractic College, and learned Active Release Technique from the founder, P. Michael Leahy, DC, ART, CCSP.