How to Ease Shoulder Pain from Sleeping

Pinpoint the cause of your neck and shoulder pain and read our tips and tricks for relieving your shoulder pain at night.

By Sheryl Grassie

Shoulder pain is common and can readily interfere with a good night’s sleep. It can be caused by a number of different factors, such as your sleep position, rotator cuff injuries, and arthritis. But, your mattress can also be a contributing factor. 

What about how you sleep can make your shoulder hurt? If you experience shoulder pain and want to know what you do about it, you’ve come to the right place. Before we look at ways to solve the problem, let’s look at what might be causing the pain.

Woman sleeping on her side

Causes of Shoulder Pain

Of the many causes of shoulder pain, the most common are sleep position, injuries like rotator cuff injury or overuse, and medical conditions, especially those associated with inflammation like arthritis or bursitis. Here is a little more about each of these different causes.

Sleep Position

The goal is always to sleep in a position that keeps your spine aligned for good blood flow and nerve stability. You may know what it feels like if you sleep in an unaligned position, because you can wake with neck pain, shoulder pain, or your arms may fall asleep from lack of blood flow. 

If you are cold at night or there is a draft in your room, you can unconsciously tense your shoulder area while pulling the covers over your neck trying to stay warm. This can happen when using a fan at night and can contribute to shoulder pain both while sleeping and during the day.

Can Sleeping on Your Side Cause Shoulder Pain?

Sleeping on your side or with your arm under your pillow can put a lot of pressure on the muscles and tendons in your shoulder. Side sleepers who lie their head in their arm can also misalign their neck, leading to both neck and shoulder pain from side sleeping.

Sleeping on your stomach can also cause misalignment. A mattress that is too soft or too firm may cause your spine to curve during sleep. Additionally, if your pillow doesn’t give you the support you need, you can end up in a position that causes tension or cramping.

Read More: Best Pillows for Side Sleepers

Over time, sleeping in a position that strains your body can result in serious shoulder problems that can interfere with sleep.

Injuries

This is a broad category that can include gross injuries like tearing your rotator cuff, the kind of injury that happens while playing a sport like tennis, or simply reaching too high while working around the house. Torn rotator cuffs happen readily, especially as we age, and are quite painful.

Repetitive use injuries are another cause of shoulder pain. On a micro level, tendons or other parts of the shoulder can experience very small tears that over time become serious injuries. You don’t necessarily know they are happening until the pain indicates there is a problem. 

Activities that might precipitate repetitive injuries include professional sports where the body is repeatedly under pressure and construction jobs where you experience pounding or jerking over and over that affects the shoulder. 

Even things around the house like gardening can cause a repetitive motion injury if done to the point of straining the shoulder. Even some kinds of factory work can cause overuse.

Medical Conditions

Injuries and medical conditions are only somewhat differentiated, as aspects of both conditions can overlap. According to WebMD, you can have a tear that you don’t know about that causes an inflammatory reaction and results in osteoarthritis of the shoulder. Or you can have bursitis of the shoulder, another inflammatory disorder, that may have no known cause. Inflammation combined with restricted use is thought to cause frozen shoulder (adhesive capsulitis) another common cause of shoulder pain.

If you think one of these conditions is the cause of your shoulder pain, make sure to contact a medical professional for confirmation.

Woman sleeping soundly on a new mattress on her side

How to Sleep with Shoulder Pain at Night

There are some very effective ways to ease shoulder pain from sleeping. The first thing to consider of course is how to avoid the problem in the first place. That would include paying attention to your sleep position, not over working your shoulder joints, and keeping healthy with enough sleep, exercise, and a healthy diet. 

  • Don’t sleep on the sore shoulder: Some pain can be eradicated or lessened with rest and time. Keeping your shoulder in a neutral position during sleep can help. Change your sleep position and try sleeping on your back or your other side. Avoid your stomach as this position can exacerbate the potential problem. 
  • Avoid repetitive movements: Anything that you do over and over puts stress on your muscles and can cause joint pain. If you are already experiencing pain in your shoulder, it will heal faster if you avoid any repetitive motions that can add stress.
  • Stay in good shape: A strong, healthy body resists injury better, stays pain-free more easily, recovers from injury faster, and can handle things like repetitive movements without problems. Diet, exercise, and sleep make up the trifecta for good health.
  • Stretch or do yoga: Keeping joints limber is very important for preventing injury and to help restore function. A tight muscle tears more easily and can cause the pain you are experiencing in your shoulder. Regularly stretching or doing yoga before bed can help.
  • Pain Relievers: Don’t suffer and compromise sleep while you are figuring out a more permanent solution to your shoulder pain. Take over-the-counter analgesics to relieve pain and help you sleep.

Sleep Accessories and Shoulder Pain

Is it time to get a new mattress? A softer, more form fitting mattress, can really ease pain or even work to prevent it in the first place. Latex or memory foam is often recommended for relief of shoulder pain and to keep your spine aligned and your blood flowing while sleeping. Look for a mattress with good pressure relief.

Read More: Best Mattress for Shoulder Pain

Neck and shoulder pain often go together, or one can cause the other. A good pillow that supports your head and neck and takes pressure off your shoulder will do wonders to relieve pain.

Read More: Best Pillows for Neck Pain

When to Get Help

  • If you have a sudden onset of pain in your shoulder, you may want to see the doctor for input.
  • If the pain continues for more than several weeks, it needs checking out.
  • If you have chronic pain after trying at-home fixes, and especially if it is compromising sleep, seek professional help, and ask for a treatment plan or a referral to a physical therapist.
  • If you experience a weakness in your shoulder or a significant loss in range of motion, see your healthcare provider.
  • If your shoulder pain happens as part of an accident, you will want to get it checked to determine the extent of the injury.

Summary

Shoulder pain can be caused by your sleep position, a mattress that is too firm or too soft, a pillow that doesn’t support right, and more. Start by changing your sleeping position to help with pain. You can also consider a new mattress for side sleepers, or pillow, or both. 

If the pain is chronic or the result of a specific injury, see your doctor for a treatment plan. This might include physical therapy, exercises like stretching, support pillows to relieve joint pain and pressure, or medications to help manage the pain.


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