Specialty pillows comes in all shapes and sizes.
Illustration: Chris Philpot

With curiously constructed pillows designed to relieve everything from sinus pressure to snoring, it can be tough to know what, if anything, lives up to the hype. Consumer Reports asked two sleep doctors about the claims that a specialty pillow can lead to a better night’s sleep. Here’s what they said.

Specialty Pillows vs. The Experts

Three specialty pillows of different shapes.
From left: Anti-snore pillow, buckwheat-filled pillow, wedge-shaped pillow.
Illustration: Chris Philpot

1. Anti-Snore Pillow
The claim:
It keeps the snorer on his side (chronic snorers tend to sleep on their backs), aligning head and shoulders for uninterrupted airflow and quiet breathing.

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The facts: “When we sleep on our sides, we snore less,” says Raymond Hall, D.C., sleep-science expert and chiropractor who practices at Pacific Coast Sports Medicine in West Los Angeles. “So these can help, but I’d consider lots of other factors as well. Is the person overweight? Drinking alcohol before sleep? How are his sinuses? The pillow itself isn’t the be-all and end-all.”

Michael Breus, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist and fellow of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine who is widely known as the Sleep Doctor, agrees. “These pillows can be effective, but they can also be uncomfortable. Check the return policy. If it doesn’t work in the first three to five nights, you’ll probably be sending it back."

2. Buckwheat-Filled Pillow
The claim:
It conforms to the shape of your head, keeping sweaty sleepers cool and dry.

The facts: “Buckwheat pillows are form-fitting, molding to your neck and upper shoulders, but unless the buckwheat can be removed to change the height of the pillow, these won’t allow for spinal alignment,” Breus says.

Hall says there is an upside: “One of the main reasons people wake up at night is that their head gets hot. So the fact that buckwheat can keep you cool is a plus.” But on balance he finds buckwheat pillows a bit ... arbitrary. “I’m not a big fan of amorphous happenstance situations where something like hulls or whatever have to form perfectly together to give you the right support.” Also, buckwheat pillows are known to be loud. “I tried one and couldn’t deal with the noise it made,” Breus says.

3. Wedge-Shaped Pillow
The claim: It minimizes acid reflux and sinus pressure by angling the head, shoulders, and torso.

The facts: “I love wedge pillows,” Breus says. “We use them in sleep medicine all the time.” Hall expands on the advantages of wedges: “The 20- to 30-degree elevation helps acid drain back into the stomach rather than sit in the throat, and puts less pressure on the head. They help people sleep better through flu and colds, too.”

Three specialty pillows of different shapes.
From left: Cervical pillow, water-filled pillow, large L-shaped pillow.
Illustration: Chris Philpot

4. Cervical Pillow
The claim:
It alleviates neck pain by supporting the natural curve of the neck.

The facts: “A lot depends on fit,” Breus says. “If you’re a back sleeper and a cervical pillow has too much height, it will push your head forward and compromise breathing. If you’re a side sleeper and the pillow doesn’t raise your head enough, or too much, it can cause neck pain rather than relieve it. It’s all about whether a given pillow achieves alignment.”

Hall agrees that fit is key. He believes strongly in cervical pillows—so much so that he designed a line of them, which he sells online. His pillows are available in three sizes, to ensure the right fit. “A good cervical pillow lets you navigate from side to side while maintaining an optimal position. This is especially important during REM sleep, where we lose control of our muscles and the neck is prone to getting hurt. The right neck pillow can prevent injury.”

5. Water-Filled Pillow
The claim:
It provides soothing support to reduce neck pain—and it’s adjustable; firmness is determined by the amount of water you add.

The facts: Hall is concerned about leaking but more so about the sleep experience. “Water can feel really hard—especially if the plastic it’s wrapped in doesn’t have much give. I used to have a water bed, and it never had adequate support. This is similar—the designs just aren’t that great.” Breus speculated that sleeping on a water pillow “might be a little loud” because your ear is pressed against it, which amplifies every crinkle of plastic and slosh of fluid. “But from a support perspective, this could be a winner if it could mold to your head and neck”—so the pliability of the plastic casing of a given water pillow is a big factor.

6. Large L-Shaped Pillow
The claim:
Better neck, head, and shoulder placement and support for side sleepers—plus something to hug.

The facts: “It’s a decent idea—a pseudo body pillow that supports the head and neck and wraps down in front of body for side sleepers,” Hall says. “It elevates the upper arm a bit, which is good, because when the elbows touch, that puts pressure on the shoulders. And as humans, we like support—we like to cuddle. But we move around 14 to 16 times a night, and a pillow like this might be difficult to reposition and navigate over.”

Breus also sees pros and cons: “I like these a lot, because they can go between the legs to minimize hip strain. That’s especially great for pregnant women and those with lower back or hip pain. But they can put a barrier between you and your partner.”

Your Mattress Matters, Too

To get a good night's sleep, you also need a proper mattress that suits your size and sleep style (side, back, or a combination). Though Consumer Reports does not currently test pillows, we do test innerspring, foam, and adjustable air mattresses and have well over 100 models in our mattress ratings.

Can't decide which type you want? Read our comprehensive mattress buying guide and you'll be ready to shop.