How to Sleep with Shoulder Pain

Dr. Pamela Mehta, MD
Orthopedic Surgeon, San Jose

How to sleep with shoulder pain

Have you ever spent hours and hours of the night tossing and turning, but can’t seem to turn your brain off and get to sleep? It’s even worse if you have a joint injury that’s causing some pain. The lack of distractions while you’re laying in bed leads to the pain seeming worse.

Shoulder pain can lead to sleepless nights and grumpy days, especially if you sleep on your side or front. The pain itself makes it difficult to sleep and having to sleep in a different position makes it harder.

Poor sleep can worsen your mood for the following day, and can also impact your energy levels. This, and difficulty concentrating, can impact your mental health. This can worsen your immune system and prolong your recovery from joint conditions. Thus, it’s so important to get a good amount of rest!

So, how do you sleep while you’re suffering from shoulder pain?

How to Sleep with Shoulder Pain

Managing your sleep when you have shoulder pain depends on your normal sleeping pattern. It is also affected by the severity of your pain and the cause of your shoulder pain.

You can control your sleeping pattern by managing three aspects affecting the sleep-pain cycle:

  • Pain levels
  • Position
  • Lifestyle

Managing Your Pain Levels

During the day your brain does a good job of distracting you from the pain. By focusing on whatever is going on in your daily activities, you can push the pain to the back of your mind. However, at night this no longer works! Sometimes it can feel almost impossible to sleep with shoulder pain. Using painkillers to numb the pain is a great first step to getting you to sleep.

Here are some tips on how to manage your pain levels at night using painkillers:

  • Timing is Everything. If you’re not careful about when you take your medications, you could find your painkillers wearing off. If this happens just as you’re trying to sleep, you’ll end up waiting until the next dose. It’s even worse if you’re at your maximum daily dose of painkillers and will need to sleep without them. Time your medication so that you take it around 30 minutes to an hour before bed.
  • Save the Stronger Stuff. Generally, we recommend taking the lowest dose of painkillers that manages your pain. Opiates and other strong pain medications have side effects and are addictive at larger doses. If you’re lowering your pain meds, save the strongest dose for night-time. That way, you don’t have to worry about drowsiness, and your night pain will be more manageable.
  • Hot or Cold Packs. If you’re suffering from an inflammatory condition such as bursitis or frozen shoulder, use an ice pack (or frozen peas) just before you head to sleep. If it’s a muscular ache that’s preventing you from sleeping, try a hot water bottle.

Sorting Your Sleeping Position

Choosing a comfortable sleeping position while you have shoulder pain can be especially difficult if you’re a side-sleeper, but even those who sleep on their front or back will usually have their arm in a position which causes discomfort. So, how do you manage?

Back Sleepers

If you normally sleep on your back with your arms at your side, this position can add additional pressure to your shoulder joint.

Place the affected arm across your stomach with your elbow bent and place a pillow underneath. This lifts your arm to help reduce the pressure on your shoulder.

preventing shoulder pain while sleeping on your back

Side Sleepers

If you’re a side sleeper, your sleeping position while suffering from shoulder pain will depend on whether you’re lying on the side with shoulder pain or not.

When lying on the non-affected side, place one pillow just in front of your chest, and another pillow on top of that so that it goes under your affected arm. This will raise your arm and reduce pressure on the shoulder joint.

preventing shoulder pain while sleeping on the non-affected shoulder

Ideally you should avoid lying on the affected side, but you can try to relieve some of the pressure using pillows. Take a flat pillow and lay it underneath you at waist height, while leaving some space between this pillow and the pillow your head is lying on. This gives you a channel between the pillows to place the affected arm and helps to alleviate the pressure.

preventing shoulder pain while sleeping on the affected shoulder

Front Sleepers

Sorry front sleepers – this isn’t a good position for when you’re recovering from a shoulder injury! If you’re a front sleeper, you’re going to have to get used to sleeping in another position.

Sleep Hygiene and Lifestyle Changes

With a world so full of distractions, it’s no wonder that sleep hygiene has become such a big topic. It’s easy to find yourself scrolling through your phone until late at night, and then struggling to doze off. Luckily, sleep hygiene is one of the easiest ways to get your sleep cycle back in order and make it easier to sleep with shoulder pain.

When it comes to sleep, our brains love routine. Your body’s internal clock regulates your sleep cycle by producing melatonin before you go to bed and cortisol when you wake up. If you find yourself out of sync with your normal routine, your body clock won’t trigger your sleep cycle at the right time – so it’s important that you get to bed and wake up at the same time each day (yes – even weekends!).

You may also need some help to wind down before you go to sleep. Late-night working and bedtime phone use will leave your brain overstimulated and make it difficult to get to sleep.  Put down your phone at least 30 minutes before bed and try to avoid doing any work late into the evening.

You can also take part in relaxing activities which get your brain in the right mood to sleep:

  • Read a book
  • Take a bath
  • Meditate, or spend a few minutes focusing on your breathing
  • Do some yoga or gentle stretches

In the daytime, you should avoid caffeine and nicotine, as these will stay in your system for at least 4-6 hours. You should also avoid taking any daytime naps. There’s a misconception that alcohol helps with sleep, and while it might make you drowsy, alcohol worsens the quality of sleep and will make your daytime sleepiness worse.

The better sleep you get, the less pain you’ll experience throughout the day and at night – so sleep hygiene can really make a difference to your night-time shoulder pain.

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Condition-Specific Techniques to Manage Shoulder Pain

There are many potential causes of shoulder pain, all of which will impact your sleep:

  • Frozen Shoulder
  • Impingement
  • Bursitis
  • Arthritis
  • Bicep Tendonitis
  • Rotator Cuff Tears
  • Recent Shoulder Surgery

Sleeping while your arm is in a sling can cause additional discomfort. We will discuss how to sleep with shoulder pain due to specific conditions such as bursitis, frozen shoulder, and shoulder impingement below.

How to Sleep with Bicep Tendonitis

Bicep Tendonitis causes pain and tenderness at the top of your arm, so your shoulder pain will worsen if you try to sleep on your front or side. To get to sleep with bicep tendonitis, it’s best to sleep either on your back, or on the non-affected side – using the sleeping positions above.

You can also incorporate gentle shoulder stretches into your night-time routine, making sure that you don’t push yourself too hard. Keep it gentle and do some of these stretches as part of your daily wind-down.

How do you Sleep with Shoulder Bursitis?

Shoulder bursitis is caused by irritation of the fluid-filled sac (bursa) around your shoulder and will ache even worse at night. To sleep with shoulder bursitis, try taking a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medication before bed to help settle the inflammation in your shoulder (check this with your doctor first).

When sleeping with shoulder bursitis, you should avoid sleeping on your front or side. Sleeping on your back is best for this condition, though if you simply cannot get to sleep on your back you can try the side-sleeping positions above.

How to Sleep with Frozen Shoulder

When trying to sleep with a frozen shoulder, you will have additional difficulty as your shoulder movement is severely reduced. You will struggle to lift your arm above your head if you sleep on your front and attempting to get your arm into this position will worsen the problem.

To sleep with a frozen shoulder, try sleeping on your back or the non-affected side. You can place some pillows under the affected arm to help alleviate some of the pressure. You can also take some painkillers about an hour before bedtime to help with some of the associated pain.

How to Sleep with Shoulder Impingement

When you’re suffering from shoulder impingement, certain positions will cause additional pain. Side-sleeping in the normal position may be possible for you depending on the severity of your condition, even on the affected side.

If you’re suffering from minor pain while sleeping on the side affected by shoulder impingement, try using pillows to relieve some of the pressure on your shoulder. If you’re still experiencing pain, you’ll have to try sleeping on your back. Sleeping on your front is likely to cause pain for all forms of shoulder impingement, so try to stick to your back or side.

Shoulder impingement is commonly associated with rotator cuff problems, and in this case you need to avoid causing further damage to your rotator cuff. To sleep with a rotator cuff injury, stick to sleeping either on your back, or on your non-affected side.

How to Sleep with Shoulder Pain on Both Sides

When both of your shoulders are hurting, it’s even harder to find a comfortable sleeping position. Most of the sleeping positions put some level of pressure on your shoulders, so you need to use pillows and padding to take some pressure off. To achieve this, keep your arm slightly away from your body using the sleeping positions we discussed above.

If you only have minor pain in your shoulders, but back or side sleeping is making it worse, this is one of the only situations where I would recommend trying out sleeping on your front. You can put a pillow under your hips to align your body and take some pressure off your shoulders.

Still struggling to sleep with shoulder pain despite this? You can either try switching from side to side to prevent the pressure from building up or talk to your doctor about increasing the pain relief medications you take at night.

Sleeping with a Shoulder Sling

If you’ve had shoulder surgery and need to have your shoulder in a sling, you may find most sleeping positions uncomfortable.

If you’re sleeping on your back, the extra weight from your shoulder sling will put pressure on your shoulder and increase the pain. To prevent this, place a pillow underneath the whole of your affected arm, including the shoulder. This lifts the shoulder and prevents gravity from pulling on the joint and causing pain. 

For side sleepers, you’ll need to sleep on the non-affected side to avoid causing damage to your shoulder. Place plenty of pillows (you’ll need at least 2 folded pillows!) underneath the arm that’s in a sling. Make sure that this arm is well supported, and gravity isn’t trying to pull on your joint.

“Sleeping With A Sling After Rotator Cuff Surgery” by Panorama Orthopedics & Spine Center.

How to Sleep After Shoulder Surgery With a Recliner Chair

Once you’ve reached a stage where you no longer need to wear a sling, you may still feel uncomfortable sleeping in your normal position. While you can try some of the advice in the sleeping position section, if you have a recliner chair you can use this to have a more comfortable sleep.

In your recliner chair, sleep upright and find a comfortable position where you can keep your arms at your side. This helps to reduce post-op pain and inflammation, and will give you a more comfortable sleep. If you normally have your recliner chair in a room with a TV, make sure to keep the TV off! Using screens late at night affects your chances of a good and restful sleep – try to stay away from screens for at least an hour before bedtime.

How Resilience Orthopedics Can Help

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Dr. Pamela Mehta is an orthopedic surgeon and a specialist in sports injuries, degenerative arthritis, and minimally invasive surgery. Dr. Mehta offers a concierge service and treats you holistically, rather than just fixing your joints. She listens to your concerns, takes time to explain how your condition and potential surgery will affect you, and works with you to create the best treatment plan.

Resilience Orthopedics is based San Jose, California. To make sure you get the right diagnosis and treatment the first time, get in touch to begin your journey to recovery.


Ruby G.
Ruby G.
My experience with Dr Mehta was simply phenomenal. I had a cyst on my wrist and severe shoulder pain. Dr Mehta scheduled me quickly and her staff were so kind and personable.  She discussed the treatment plan with me in detail and made me comfortable with plan. Her bedside manner was kind, empathetic and thoughtful and she went out of her way to make me feel comfortable. After treatment my shoulder was pain free after months of agony, and she removed the cyst  from my wrist.   She followed up with me the next day to make sure I was ok. I can't recommend Dr Mehta highly enough, high quality, comfortable treatment from a wonderfully skilled surgeon. Thank you Dr Mehta!
S G.
S G.
I highly recommend Dr. Pamela Mehta. I was recently helped by her for a broken bone that needed surgery. She is a very detailed-oriented and thorough orthopedic surgeon who thinks creatively about solving problems every step of the presurgery, surgery and recovery. She is top-notch. I had an extremely positive experience with her and would recommend her and her staff to anyone seeking a smart, professional and detailed team for a bone cast or orthopedic surgery.
Samantha L.
Samantha L.
When your children like to run around barefoot it is inevitable that they will eventually get something lodged into their foot. Our daughter was climbing some trees in our backyard and wedged a couple splinters deep in her foot. After a few hours of attempts at home to remove these splinters with our own tweezers, soaking the feet, various internet remedies (and lots of scared screaming from our daughter when we got near her with tweezers) we sought the help of Dr. Mehta. Dr. Mehta's kind and calming approach was most helpful when she quickly examined the foot, spoke with our daughter, and then removed the two splinters from her foot. She helped to keep our daughter calm during the procedure and deftly pulled out the splinters. We recommend Dr. Mehta to anyone needing an expert physician who can deal with delicate patients!
Michele G.
Michele G.
Dr. Pamela Mehta earned my highest MD review.  I have seen a half dozen surgeon's involving multiple surgeries for orthopedic injury and this doctor checks all the best boxes: * an emphatic listener * holistic 'whole person' treatment; much more than just a skilled surgeon * tightly networked to other excellent coordinating care MD's * recommends surgical alternatives whenever possible * real concern for functional patient outcomes * tough when needed, even when treatment is uncomfortable * solid, well organized support staff Thank You Dr. Mehta!
Aaliya Y.
Aaliya Y.
I consulted Dr. Mehta after breaking my ankle in December 2019. She was extremely empathetic, knowledgeable, and took her time to explain everything to me so that I had a good understanding of my fracture and management options. She held my hand and got me comfortable with the idea of surgery and allayed my fears. Her office was very responsive, timely and  worked efficiently to help me get my imaging done in an expeditious manner. I highly recommend her for her incredible bedside manner, empathy and level of expertise. She is exactly what you want in your surgeon.
Katrina A.
Katrina A.
Life is full of mishaps and great relationships. I had one really big mishap and happily stumbled into a a wonderful relationship. I've been blessed to cross paths with the beautiful professional Dr. Mehta and her wonderful staff. In a time when pain seriously interferes with manners. They were kind and gracious even when I was not. The of staff  everything they we always great.
Mike V.
Mike V.
The best! I have been going to Dr Mehta for years and she is second to none! Highly recommend
A T.
A T.
This review is long overdue from a very happy and ever so grateful patient! I was having major shoulder pain to the point where I couldn't raise my left shoulder. I decided to go to Dr. Mehta after a friend recommended me to her.  Dr. Mehta was very attentive during our initial apt. She was quickly able to diagnose the root cause of my shoulder issue and explained the how and why I ended up with this pain. Her treatment plan involved me doing various mobility exercises and after two weeks I can honestly say I am at least 50% better. I think a few other Yelp reviewers mentioned this but I have to say it again, Dr Mehta truly cares about her patients and it was very apparent from how she followed up with my recovery. She called and emailed me to make sure I was following the plan and kept up with all my progress. I'm not sure how Dr Mehta finds the time to do all this but after my experience with her, I can say with certainty that she is a very skillful doctor and I have 100% trust in her.
steve k.
steve k.
I had a great experience my one time meeting Dr Mehta. She walked me through what the problem was and the course of action to fix it. She laid things out calmly with a step by step of how we get me back to 100% with no future pain. Her calm demeanor and thorough explanation made me feel at ease that everything would work out fine. I followed the steps provided and everything did work out just as she'd laid out. Should something come up again I will definitely be going to Dr Mehta again.
gajan t.
gajan t.
I write only a few Yelp reviews a year, and hope that this will help anyone who is trying to find the right orthopedic doctor.  I went to 3 orthopedic doctors when I had a serious knee issue earlier this year. Although, I received good advice from all the doctors, I chose Dr. Mehta because she spent a considerable amount of time helping me to understand the root cause of my knee pain and then created a blueprint moving forward of preventative measures. She was definitely very insightful in her diagnosis and more importantly her treatment. What actually inspired me to really write this yelp review was because of her follow up calls and how much I realized that she really wanted to see me get better. I've been to many good doctors in the bay area but only a handful that offer this much personalized care. I highly recommend Dr. Mehta and happy to talk to anyone about my experience if you trying to decide on an orthopedic doctor.