Body Pillows - How to Use Them and Which Types are Best for Pain Relief and After Surgery

A body pillow is a long pillow that allows sleepers to feel more supported at night. Body pillows are a popular choice for side sleepers, people with chronic pain or joint discomfort, those with sleep apnea, expecting mothers, and patients recovering from surgery. 

They’re also extremely effective in taking stress off of the hips, lower back, neck, and shoulders - some of the most common pain points people experience while sleeping.

Body pillows have evolved quite a bit since their first inception as an oversized rectangle. Today they come in some pretty interesting shapes and configurations. In addition to the traditional body pillow, some newer designs resemble big fluffy letters, including the U, J, and C-shaped body pillows. Others twist into more of a snake-like pillow tube. Last but not least, there are full-body pillow systems that combine body pillows with support wedges to cradle the entire body while sleeping.

With all the unique shapes and variations of body pillows on the market today, many sleep-weary consumers are left scratching their heads on which ones are intended for what purpose and how to use them to achieve an ideal night’s sleep.

In this guide, we’re sharing our expertise on all things body pillows - what the shapes are, how they can alleviate pain, and care instructions. It’s important to note, we are not medical experts, only pillow experts. This guide is for general information only and is not meant as a substitute for a medical diagnosis. Speak to your physician if you’re experiencing chronic pain.

How Does Each Shape of Body Pillow Help with Sleeping?

Traditional Rectangular Body Pillows - The most basic of body pillows out there, these pillows allow sleepers to hug the pillow from the side, usually with the pillow between their knees, while keeping the spine in a neutral position.

U-Shaped Pillows - A popular option for side sleepers, these pillows have two long pillow sections that connect into the bend of the U above the head. With a U pillow, the back and the front midsection are both supported as you lay on your side during sleep. This pillow is a popular option for expecting mothers. On the downside, this pillow might not be ideal for those with shoulder pain.

J-Shaped Pillows - With the J pillow, side sleepers can hug into the curve of the J or use it to bolster the back. This pillow is also a popular option for expecting mothers.

C-Shaped Pillows - Another option for mostly side sleeping, the curve of the C can be used to cushion the back, neck, and shoulders. Alternatively, sleepers can hug into the curve of the C which can be the perfect fit for a baby bump. This pillow is also a popular option for expecting mothers.

Twisty Long Pillow - Yet another iteration of the body pillow, the twisty long pillow can sometimes be configured into the U shape depending on length. More of a tube-like shape, it’s popular for taller people or those just looking for a longer traditional body pillow.

Full-Body Pillow Systems - A full-body pillow system utilizes both body pillows and wedges and are ideal for back sleepers, those with sleep apnea, and patients recovering from surgery who are required to sleep in an elevated position. The use of wedges combined with body pillows can also be helpful for relieving lower back pain. This pillow is the safest option for those with shoulder pain or recovering from shoulder surgery as it’s the only body pillow that doesn’t involve sleeping on the side.

How Long Should a Body Pillow Be?

Most body pillows are roughly between 48 and 54 inches in length on average. Taller people might want to measure the pillow from the top of the head to where the knee bends to make sure it’s of adequate length.

How to Care for a Body Pillow

With their large size, many people are afraid to wash their body pillows. Good news is, there are several ways to keep your body pillow clean and smelling fresh like new.

Some body pillows can indeed be washed in a conventional washing machine. Before doing so, it’s important to check the manufacturer's care instructions as the cleaning method will largely depend on the materials used in the construction of the pillow.

If your pillow is machine washer friendly, most likely the recommendation will be to wash it with cold water on the delicate cycle. If your body pillow is perhaps a bit older and you can’t find the instructions anymore, this would be the safest wash cycle to try.

First, be sure your washing machine is large enough to accommodate the size of the pillow - don’t overstuff the machine - or take it to a laundromat where you can use a larger washer. 

What about drying? If you live in a dry climate such as the American west, you might be able to get away with air drying your body pillow. But if you live in a humid climate, you’ll most likely need to kickstart the drying process using a large drier set on low. This could take a while to fully or even partially dry the pillow. 

Look for covers on the pillow that could be unzipped and removed as it would be much easier to wash the pillow cover than the entire pillow itself. With that said, the pillow cover could also shrink so washing it on cold and delicate - plus air drying - would be the safest way to prevent this.

Some body pillows can be kept nice and fresh by simply spot-cleaning them by using a damp cloth with a small amount of detergent diluted in a cup of water. Scrub small or large areas of the pillow and allow it to air dry.