Shoulder Pain from Sleeping On Your Side

Written by: Alex Savy
Read 8 minLast updated July 30, 2020

If lying in bed makes you hurt, that’s not a good sign.

Shoulder pain is quite common and may affect up to 26% of the adult population. And, naturally, it can disrupt one’s sleep.

So, what can you do when experiencing shoulder pain from sleeping on your side? That’s what we are going to look at today.

Shoulder Pain: Nature and Potential Causes You Should Be Aware Of

The shoulders are responsible for a wide range of motion. Countless daily movements and routines require them to move and stretch.

Now, the shoulder is a joint that has a ball-and-socket construction. There are three main bones: upper arm bone (the humerus), collarbone (the clavicle), and the shoulder blade (the scapula). There’s also a layer of cartilage for the cushioning, minor joints, and the rotator cuff.

The rotator cuff is what gives the shoulders their range of motion. It is made up of tendons, the tissue that connects muscles with the bones. When the tendons in the rotator cuff are swollen or damaged, it becomes hard for us to move or lift our arms.

Now, let’s move on to shoulder pain from side sleeping.

Here’s what you need to know first:

If you experience shoulder pain when sleeping on your side, there could be multiple reasons for that. And the way you sleep may only be the aggravating factor, while the main cause could be an underlying condition.

So, let’s take a look at possible causes of your shoulder pain.

Shoulder Injury

Side sleeper shoulder pain can originate from the tear in your rotator cuff muscles or the cartilage. Shoulder fracture, dislocation, or the separation of joints may also be possible due to an injury. In this case, your shoulder can look swollen, and you may even see some bruising.

Sleeping Position

Research suggests that your sleep posture is important. When you don’t maintain a healthy posture during sleep, you put too much pressure on your muscles and joints, which can lead to hip, back, neck, and shoulder pain.

Some studies also suggest that sleeping on your side can actually cause shoulder pain due to the postural immobility and the prolonged pressure on one’s shoulder.

Now, the most common sleep-related cause of shoulder pain for side sleepers is an unsuitable mattress. Those who sleep in the lateral position require a generous amount of cushioning for the hips and shoulders. As a side sleeper, you need your mattress to gently hug the shoulders, reducing pressure points.

Unfortunately, many sleepers use mattresses that are too firm for them. As a result, the shoulders don’t sink in deep enough and resist the surface of the mattress. This creates tension in the joints and muscles, which can lead to shoulder pain.

Also read: How to choose the Best Mattress For Side Sleepers With Shoulder Pain and 5 mattress recommendations

Frozen Shoulder

This condition causes shoulder inflammation and can lead to pain and limited mobility. It usually develops over time and can be associated with diabetes, shoulder injuries, and other health issues.

Poor Posture

A commonly overlooked factor, poor posture can put uneven pressure and stress on your muscles, bones, and spine, which can lead to shoulder straining and pain.

Poor posture is typically associated with long hours of sitting, keeping your head down for long periods of time (when using your smartphone, for example), and, of course, an unhealthy sleeping position.

Shoulder Pain Prevalence

Source: https://www.intechopen.com/books/pain-in-perspective/the-epidemiology-of-shoulder-pain-a-narrative-review-of-the-literature

Interestingly enough, shoulder pain is quite common among youngsters. This may be related to increased computer use (keeping the static posture and doing repetitive moments) and a less active lifestyle (leading to poor posture as well).

Repetitive Work Injuries

You don’t have to be a professional athlete or a construction worker to have shoulder issues. Any repetitive movement that is being done multiple times daily at work can lead to shoulder strain, injuries, and pain. You could be painting your fence all day or cleaning, for example, and that can put too much pressure on your shoulders. Even something as simple as serving coffee all day might cause shoulder pain.

Illness

Now, there are many health conditions that can cause shoulder pain. Swollen tendons in the rotator cuff (also known as the tendinitis), arthritis, and shoulder impingement can also make it challenging to sleep on one side. 

Now, while you cannot self-diagnose, it’s important to watch out for more dangerous symptoms like:

  • constant pain that doesn’t disappear for more than a week;
  • swollen shoulder;
  • fever or chills;
  • limited shoulder mobility;
  • excessive night sweats.

If any of these occur, it’s better to consult your doctor right away.

Physical therapy is a common solution to many shoulder issues. A physical therapist will guide you through the special exercises that are meant to improve your shoulder strength and its range of motion.

Best Sleeping Positions for Shoulder Pain

Sleeping on the side is the most common sleeping position among different age categories.

Best Sleeping Positions for Shoulder Pain

Source: https://www.researchgate.net/figure/Percentage-of-position-of-most-sleep-reported-within-each-age-group_fig1_277828064

However, this sleeping position might be associated with shoulder pain.

So, what is the best way to sleep with shoulder pain? And what position is the healthiest one in this case?

The good news is, you have multiple options, which include:

  • On your back with the arms down by your torso. Research suggests that this position (also called supine) results in lower subacromial pressure levels. This means reduced pressure on your shoulder joints. This sleeping position is also optimal for proper spinal alignment.
  • On your side (on your healthy shoulder). Side sleeping is comfortable for many individuals, so if you can’t switch to back sleeping, you can try lying on the side that doesn’t cause you pain. In this case, you may want to add a supportive pillow for your upper arm and sour shoulder to keep the correct spinal alignment and help the muscles in this area relax. 
  • On your back, with your arms bent and resting on your stomach. To minimize the pressure points, you can place a small pillow under each elbow to elevate the arms and align them with the shoulders.
  • With a body pillow. If you don’t mind buying a full-body pillow, you can either sleep on your “healthy” side or your back. In both situations, a good body pillow — preferably a U-shaped one — will prevent you from rolling onto your sore shoulder. Also, it will provide more support for your arm and shoulder, thus reducing pressure and helping with pain relief.

How to Sleep (and Live) Better with Shoulder Pain

How to Sleep and Live Better with Shoulder Pain

Source: https://www.clinicaledge.co/blog/infographic-shoulder-pain-with-dr-jeremy-lewis

There are many solutions to shoulder pain caused by sleeping on one side or by a medical condition. Some of these remedies require more time to work, others can give you instant relief.

So, if you want to know how to relieve shoulder pain from sleeping on the side, consider the following options:

  • Invest in a suitable mattress. There’s a chance you experience shoulder pain because your current mattress is too firm or overly soft and not supportive enough. Getting a suitable mattress for shoulder pain can help you reduce pressure and painful sensations in this area, allowing you to sleep better. Keep in mind that side sleepers typically need a generous hug and proper sinkage. 
  • Pick a suitable pillow. When lying on one side, you need a pillow that would fill in the space between your head and shoulder, providing support for the former and extra cushioning for the latter.
  • Place a pillow between your knees. This will help align the spine when lying on your side, which can reduce pressure on the shoulder.
  • Avoid sleeping on your affected shoulder. Switching sides or even positions will give your sore shoulder a chance to recover or at least reduce the pressure levels.
  • Exercise. Gentle stretching before bed can help increase the blood flow in your shoulder, allowing the muscles and tendons to heal faster. Additionally, regular exercise during the day may also reduce the pain levels you experience at night.
  • Try yoga before bed. Yoga is known for its relaxation techniques and stretching. All of that can be beneficial when dealing with shoulder pain.
  • Avoid overusing your sore shoulder. If possible, try not to perform overly repetitive movements that involve your shoulder. Take frequent breaks if repetitive motions are a part of your job. And don’t overstrain your shoulders with sports that are too active.
  • Which of these home remedies will you try to sleep better on your side? Share your thoughts in the comments!

F.A.Q.

Can side sleeping cause shoulder pain?

Yes, if you sleep on an unsuitable mattress, or if you sleep on only one side for prolonged periods of time without changing positions.

How to sleep on your side without shoulder pain?

If you already experience shoulder pain, try not to sleep on the affected shoulder. A U-shaped body pillow can prevent you from rolling to the other side and provide extra support for your sore shoulder.

References:

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  16. Edge, C. (2016, November 28). Infographic - Shoulder pain with Dr Jeremy Lewis. Retrieved July 23, 2020, from https://www.clinicaledge.co/blog/infographic-shoulder-pain-with-dr-jeremy-lewis
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