Health Benefits of Sleeping With a Wedge Pillow

A triangle of foam can provide relief from apnea, heartburn, and more

White wedge pillow on a white background.

A wedge is a triangular pillow typically made of moderately firm foam that forms an angle between 20 and 40 degrees. When used in place of a regular pillow, a wedge can elevate the head six to eight inches—a change in position that can benefit you if you snore, you have frequent acid reflux, get swollen ankles, or have another condition that gets worse when lying down or sleeping on your back.

Lightweight and versatile, a sleeping wedge pillow can be an affordable and convenient alternative to other measures of increasing head-of-bed elevation (HOBE), such using risers or adjustable beds.

If any of the following affect you, consider trying out a wedge pillow to see if it helps alleviate your symptoms.

Acid Reflux/GERD

With acid reflux or gastroesophageal reflux disease GERD, pressure on the lower esophageal sphincter (LES) allows digestive acids to escape from the stomach into the esophagus. Reflux tends to be more problematic at night and when you're lying on your back.

When you slightly elevate your head and upper body, gravity helps prevent the backward flow of stomach acids. Research has found people with GERD who sleep this way have significantly fewer and shorter reflux episodes, more rapid acid clearing, and fewer reflux symptoms.

Snoring and Sleep Apnea

People who have obstructive sleep apnea (OSA), in which breathing stops periodically during sleep, often benefit from sleeping in a semi-upright position. Elevating the head and upper torso is believed to keep the airways open, which in turn helps prevent disruptions in breathing.

Sleeping propped up on a wedge pillow also can help prevent snoring: According to the National Sleep Foundation, 45% of people snore—and 50% of them snore because they have sleep apnea.

Congestion

Anecdotal evidence suggests that a wedge pillow may help with nighttime congestion, such as that due to a cold, allergies, chronic sinusitis, or pregnancy rhinitis.

When you're upright, gravity helps your sinuses drain. When you lie down, mucus tends to pool instead. A wedge pillow could be what you need to get gravity back on your side and breathe easier.

Neck and Back Pain

A wedge pillow can be positioned to help take pressure off of the cervical spine—the vertebrae that make up the neck. This entails turning the pillow so that the lower end faces the headboard and using the higher end to support your neck while you lie on your side or back.

Lower back pain radiating from an inflamed or compressed nerve may be eased by placing the thick edge of a wedge pillow between your knees while lying on your side.

A wedge pillow placed between the knees can be especially helpful for relieving low back pain during late pregnancy. You can also use it to prop up your lower legs to reduce edema (swelling) of the ankles.

When it comes to providing support for the back, some people find two wedge pillows can be better than one. This is achieved by placing one pillow at the upper end of the bed and another at the lower end of the bed with the tapered ends facing each other.

The pillow at the head of the bed should be positioned to elevate the head and shoulders. The thighs should rest against the upward slope of the pillow at the lower end of the bed, with the upper edge supporting the backs of the knees.

This position can help lesson pressure along the length of the spine, providing for more restful sleep and lowering the likelihood of waking up with an aching back.

Swelling

Elevation is a standard recommendation for swelling or inflammation due to surgery, injury, or chronic illness. A wedge pillow can help you comfortably elevate swollen body parts when you're lying down.

For example, to elevate your knee, place the thick end of the wedge under your knee while lying on your back. You could also place the thick edge under your feet for swollen feet, ankles, or calves.

This can also help with fluid retention from pregnancy or sitting for a prolonged time.

In addition to a standard wedge, special pillows are available that have a short slope up to a flat area where your lower legs and feet rest.

Glaucoma

In this eye condition, excess fluid in the eyes increases what's called the intraocular pressure (IOP). High IOP can damage the optic nerve and impair vision, so it's important to keep it low.

Sleeping with the head elevated by a 20-degree wedge pillow can help lower IOP, according to research.

What to Look For

What you need from your wedge pillow depends on what you'll be using it for. Talk to your doctor about how large an angle is ideal for you and your condition. A smaller angle may be best for back issues and glaucoma, whereas a larger one may be best for sleep apnea, acid reflux and GERD, or to support your knees.

Ask about the ideal firmness, as well, as different materials provide different amounts of support.

Most wedge pillows are made of foam (or several types of foam) and covered in a soft cloth. If you have allergies, be sure to check the contents. Pillow cases for wedge pillows are available as well, which can help you keep yours clean and allergen-free.

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  1. Khan BA, Sodhi JS, Zargar SA, et al. Effect of bed head elevation during sleep in symptomatic patients of nocturnal gastroesophageal refluxJ Gastroenterol Hepatol. 2012;27(6):1078‐1082. doi:10.1111/j.1440-1746.2011.06968.x

  2. Zhu K, Bradley TD, Patel M, et al. Influence of head position on obstructive sleep apnea severity. Sleep Breath. 2017 Dec;21(4):821-828. doi:10.1007/s11325-017-1525-2

  3. National Sleep Foundation: Sleep.org. How to prevent snoring.

  4. Lazzaro EC, Mallick A, Singh M, et al. The effect of positional changes on intraocular pressure during sleep in patients with and without glaucomaJ Glaucoma. 2014;23(5):282‐287. doi:10.1097/01.ijg.0000435848.90957.fe

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