If you experience acid reflux at night, you may get relief in an unexpected way: By sleeping on a specially designed pillow. For some lucky people, using wedge pillows regularly can eliminate the need for acid-reducing medications or surgery.
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We talked to gastroenterologist Scott Gabbard, MD, about the role sleep position plays in acid reflux and what to look for in a wedge pillow.
How do pillows for acid reflux and GERD work?
Acid reflux happens when acid (and sometimes food) escapes from your stomach and makes its way up your esophagus and into your throat.
The discomfort acid reflux causes is called heartburn.
Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) is a chronic and severe form of acid reflux. People with GERD experience heartburn and a host of other symptoms, including trouble swallowing, hoarseness, a feeling of tightness or food being stuck in your throat, a dry cough and not-so-fresh breath.
Whether you have standard-issue acid reflux or GERD, one thing’s for sure: Sleeping can be tough. Dr. Gabbard says there are a couple of different reasons for that:
- Acid reflux tends to be at its worst after a meal. And we’re most likely to lie down shortly after eating dinner, indulging in a “midnight snack” or enjoying a “night cap.”
- When you’re lying down, the acid doesn’t have to fight gravity to get to your throat.
Regular pillows only elevate your head, which, Dr. Gabbard explains, isn’t enough to prevent acid reflux. Wedge pillows are an effective way to manage reflux because they elevate your entire torso, making it harder for the acid to travel out of your stomach to begin with.
Who should try an acid reflux pillow?
Wedge pillows are especially helpful for people with GERD, but Dr. Gabbard says that anybody who tends to get heartburn or acid reflux could potentially see their symptoms improve.
But wedge pillows aren’t just helpful for people with frequent acid reflux. You may also benefit from sleeping with an acid reflux pillow if you:
- Snore or have obstructive sleep apnea.
- Are congested or have sinus problems.
- Experience frequent back or neck pain.
- Have eye issues, especially glaucoma.
People with GERD may want to use a wedge pillow specifically designed to help with acid reflux, but it’s worth mentioning that there’s a wide range of supportive pillows on the market to address an equally wide range of sleep-disturbing health issues. For example, you can purchase wedge pillows that elevate your knees or legs — they’re especially helpful for people with circulation issues, varicose veins or people who recently had surgery. There are even specialty wedge pillows designed to support a pregnant person’s stomach.
What to look for in an acid reflux pillow
There are a few questions you need to ask yourself when you’re looking for an acid reflux pillow:
- How do I usually sleep? If you sleep on your side, you should probably opt for a softer material, like memory foam. You’ll also probably be more comfortable with a contoured incline. Back sleepers will appreciate a more supportive, flat wedge made out of polyurethane foam. Sorry, stomach sleepers: Acid reflux pillows aren’t going to work for you.
- Do I still want to use a standard pillow? For some people, a wedge pillow is comfortable enough on its own. Others — particularly side sleepers — will probably want to place their regular pillow on top of the wedge for extra head and neck support. It’s important to account for the pillow (or lack thereof) when deciding how high you want your incline to be.
- What angle and size would be most comfortable for me? Most wedge pillows designed to reduce acid reflux symptoms sit somewhere in the neighborhood of a 30- to 45-degree angle and elevate the head between six and 12 inches. It’s also important to look at the product specifications. And don’t forget about width! Not only does the pillow have to be wide enough to keep you comfortable, but it also needs to fit on your bed!
- Do I want my pillow to be adjustable? Many acid reflux pillows on the market have either folding portions or attachments that can allow you to adjust the incline height or angle. Adjustable pillows are great for people who want variety, or plan to use them during the day while reading or watching TV. They’re also worth the investment if you see yourself using the same wedge to address different health concerns on different days.
- Will I need additional wedge pillows to be comfortable? If you sleep on your back, for example, you may be more comfortable using an acid reflux pillow if you also have a smaller wedge to put under your knees.
- What is the pillow made of? If you’re allergic to materials like latex, make sure you check the composition of the pillow before purchasing it.
How to sleep with a wedge pillow
Congratulations. You have a wedge pillow! Now what?
Now, place the broad end on your bed with the flat side against the wall or headboard. When you lie down, the thinnest part of the wedge should hit somewhere between your hips and mid back. Your head and shoulders should be elevated and completely supported by the wedge. If your head is hanging off the end or your arms slide off the wedge, you’re going to need a longer/wider pillow.
Dr. Gabbard notes that it can take time to adjust to sleeping with a wedge pillow. You may have to try different brands, materials or inclines to figure out what’s most comfortable for you. Some people never get used to them, but if acid reflux is interrupting your precious sleep, it’s worth trying a few different brands before giving up.