The Pros and Cons of Sleeping Without A Pillow

6th Jun 2020


Sleeping without a pillow may sound similar to eating without a plate, typing without a keyboard, or golfing without… You know, golf balls.

But some schools of thought recommend it as a way to alleviate (or perhaps cure) neck and upper back pain.

If you’ve been wondering which is true, we’ve put some research into it and shared those findings with you here.

As it turns out, sleeping without a pillow works for some people, but not for others. Let’s get into it!

Why Do Pillows Sometimes Cause Pain?

Imagine trying to use a butcher's knife to remove a splinter from your finger. Sure, it could work - but the chances of something going wrong are definitely going to be higher.

A butcher’s knife has a very specific purpose, which doesn’t involve getting that blade close to our skin at all! You’d be better off using tweezers to remove the splinter. Not only is it far safer, but you’ll most likely get it done quicker too.

In the same way, a pillow is a tool that could help you get a better night’s rest - if you use it properly, and when necessary.

Neck and back pain can be caused by pillows, but it’s usually not the fact that you’re using a pillow that’s the problem. The pillow is most likely the wrong thickness for the position you’re lying in.

This forces your neck into an unnatural position, causing a kind of muscle strain. Your neck muscles will have to support your head the whole night.

Is Sleeping Without A Pillow Actually Beneficial?

The answer to this question depends largely on the position in which you sleep. Let’s have a look at some pros and cons for different sleeping postures, sleeping with or without a pillow.

Sleeping on Your Back

If you sleep on your back more often than not, a thick pillow may bring the head too far forward. Imagine spending the whole day with your chin almost touching your chest. You’d have to be doing a kind of evil up-stare at everyone just to look them in the eyes!

That’s the sort of equivalent of your head resting on a thick pillow when sleeping on your back. It’s not quite in the right place, and can actually cause more pain than it relieves. The exception is if you use a thin pillow that keeps your head in a neutral position - not tilted forward.

Sleeping With a Pillow:

  • Choose a thin pillow to keep your head in a neutral position.
  • A memory foam or indented pillow can help cradle the head to keep it comfortable.
  • A thicker pillow could cause neck pain.

Sleeping Without a Pillow:

  • If you have a particularly hard mattress, the back of your head may hurt!

Sleeping on Your Side

Side sleepers are the ones who may benefit most from sleeping with a pillow. They may struggle most with sleeping without a pillow.

Lying on your side means that the gap between the mattress and your head is pretty large. In order for your head to be supported, you need to bend your neck to rest it on the mattress. As I’m sure you can understand, this can contribute hugely to neck pain!

A thickish pillow will bring the head up to the right place, keeping the head straight and strain-free.

Sleeping With a Pillow:

  • A thicker pillow can keep the neck from bending to the side.
  • A thin pillow may not have much effect.

Sleeping Without a Pillow:

  • The head will fall to one side, putting strain on it and increasing the chance of neck pain.
  • You could sleep on your arm - but there’s a chance of shoulder pain or numb arms!

Sleeping on Your Stomach

Those who sleep on their stomach could benefit most from sleeping without a pillow. Firstly, if you have a fluffy thing underneath your face, breathing could become an issue!

Stomach sleeping is the least common position, and it increases the chance of neck pain. Unless you don’t need to breathe for the night, you’ll have to turn your neck in order to lie this way. Turning the neck is not really the problem - we turn side to side all the time during the day.

The problem lies in gravity putting pressure on the neck, causing pain. Of course, when it’s in that position for an extended period of time, it makes it worse. Adding a pillow means that you’re now not only twisting your neck sideways, but you’re also pushing it backwards.

Stomach sleepers, we recommend going pillowless for max comfort and safety!

Sleeping With a Pillow:

  • Places the head in an unnatural position (on top of another unnatural position!).
  • Could become a suffocation hazard if one isn’t careful.

Sleeping Without a Pillow:

  • Prevents the head from tilting forward or backward in addition to twisting sideways.


(Photo by Adi Goldstein on Unsplash) 

Will Sleeping Without A Pillow Help My Neck Pain?

In some cases, sleeping without a pillow can help ease neck pain. Usually, back sleepers will benefit most from sleeping without a pillow. But, there are some things you should consider if you struggle with neck pain.

What Position Do You Usually Sleep In?

If you’re a side sleeper, this alone could be the reason for your neck pain. It may be muscle memory for you to turn over and fall asleep like that without even feeling a hint of pain. But by the time morning comes, your neck’s been twisted for the whole night!

The same is true for stomach sleepers. If you sleep on your back, the thickness of your pillow is what matters.

When Does Your Pain Show Up?

Do you wake up in the morning with a sore neck? Or does the pain begin halfway through the day? Waking up with a sore neck could be a big indication that your sleeping position or pillow use is the culprit!

If your pain arrives during the day, it could be due to bad posture caused by something else. Sitting in front of a computer, driving, or lounging around in meetings are often culprits!

What Position Eases Your Pain?

If you turn onto your back, does your neck immediately feel better? That’s a pretty big clue! Do a bit of detective work next time you’re in bed. If one position brings about pain, switch it up until you feel better. Pay attention to which positions are more comfortable!

The Verdict…

Sleeping without a pillow can help your neck pain - if the pillow is what’s causing your pain in the first place.


(Photo by Alexander Possingham on Unsplash) 

How Do I Start Sleeping Without A Pillow?

If you’re keen to try sleeping without a pillow, here’s how to make the shift easily.

Change Your Head Angle Slowly

Drastic changes can actually increase pain! It’s best to take it slow and allow your body to adjust. Don’t just go from a thick pillow to none - your neck muscles may not know what’s hit them!

Go from a thick one, to a thinner one, then an almost-not-even-there pillow, and then to no pillow. Take a few days to get used to each before changing again! This adjustable pillow would be a great tool for you!

Use Pillows To Keep You In The Right Position

If you usually sleep on your side and want to start sleeping on your back, try this. Sandwich yourself between pillows to avoid turning over in the night!

Make Sure You’re Sleeping On The Right Surface

If your neck pain remains, you may need to change the surface you’re sleeping on. Get a new mattress, or try sleeping on the floor!


(Photo by elizabeth lies on Unsplash) 

Who Shouldn't Be Sleeping Without A Pillow?

Of course, sleeping without a pillow isn’t going to work for everyone. Those who shouldn’t include:

  • Those who need neck support.
  • Those who sleep mostly on their side.
  • Babies (they’re still growing, so we need their posture to be good!).


Is sleeping without a pillow the right thing for you? Only you can decide!

Do a bit of bed-detective work, try a new way of sleeping, and who knows! Perhaps it could be the key to improving or even eliminating your neck pain.

Happy sleeping (with or without a pillow)!