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How to Sleep with Shoulder Pain

Dr. Pamela Mehta, MD
Shoulder Surgeon in San Jose

How to Sleep With Shoulder Pain

Dr. Pamela Mehta is an experienced shoulder surgeon renowned for her expertise in sports injuries and shoulder conditions. She is the founder of Resilience Orthopedics.

With an impressive career and training under leading innovators, she has served as Chief of Orthopedics and National Orthopedic Director for a major orthopedic hospitalist group and advises several publicly traded companies.

Pamela Mehta

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?

What’s the Best Sleeping Position for Shoulder Pain?

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?

To sleep with shoulder pain, you’ll have to create a peaceful environment first. Sleeping in a dark room can make you sleep better by controlling how much melatonin (sleep hormone) your body makes. This helps your body follow its natural sleep schedule, which can make you feel calm and rested.

Studies show that melatonin can help fight swelling and pain, so it’s a good option for stopping inflammation. Since different shoulder pains often cause ongoing swelling. Sleeping in a dark room to control melatonin levels could really help you ease shoulder pain and reduce swelling.

Sleep positions affect shoulder pain because they can put pressure on different parts of your shoulder, causing pain. In this guide, we’ll cover some of the best sleeping positions for different shoulder pains. Read on to learn more about it!

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.

don't use your front to sleep with shoulder pain

How to Sleep with Shoulder Pain

Managing your sleep with 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.

The best way to sleep with shoulder pain is very personal. 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.

woman using cold pack for shoulder pain to sleep

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
woman taking a relaxing bath

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.

Maintaining a Good Posture

Having good posture isn’t only important when you’re standing or sitting, but also when you’re lying down.

If you have pain in your upper back because of bad posture, it can lead to shoulder blade pain. To help with shoulder blade pain, try not to sleep on your arm or use a supportive pillow instead.

Book a Consultation with Dr. Pamela Mehta, MD

The Best Orthopedic Surgeon in San Jose

Dr. Mehta is a board-certified orthopedic surgeon who can help you recover from your joint condition. If you:

  • Are Suffering From Pain and Mobility Issues
  • Need Orthopedic Assessment and Advice
  • Want Treatment From a Top Orthopedic Doctor

We Can Help

Condition-Specific Techniques

There are many potential causes of poor sleep with 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.

woman struggling to sleep with shoulder pain

Sleeping with Rotator Cuff Injury

According to a study, people with rotator cuff tears have more trouble sleeping than those with other shoulder problems.

Shoulder pain due to rotator cuff tears usually gets worse at night. Because of this, people with this pain often don’t sleep well. In such cases, how to sleep with shoulder pain becomes a major concern.

Here are some suggestions to sleep with rotator cuff pain:

  • The best sleeping position for pain from rotator cuff injury is sleeping on your back. Use a pillow or blanket under your arm to stop it from dropping down. This helps avoid straining your shoulder. Keep your arm aligned with your body.
  • If you sleep on your side and your shoulder hurts, sleep with that shoulder facing up. Make a “pillow wall” in front of you and rest your arm on it. Make sure that the pillow wall is as tall as your body is.
  • These pillow tricks help your sore shoulder feel better by putting it in a more natural position, which eases the strain on the joint.

Note: Don’t sleep on your stomach. This can make your arm and shoulder pain worse.

woman sleeping peacefully on my back

How to Sleep with Calcific Tendonitis

Calcific tendonitis happens when calcium builds up in the tendons or muscles. This can cause swelling and pain. It might be hard for you to sleep, especially if the buildup is in your shoulder joint.

Medicines without steroids that reduce inflammation and pain are used for sudden pain. Steroid injections into the shoulder area can also help reduce pain, though they do have side effects.

To sleep with calcific tendonitis, try:

  1. Using ice or heat on your shoulder before going to bed. Icing can help ease pain and bring down swelling.
  2. Do some therapeutic exercises before bedtime (i.e. gentle stretching exercises)
  3. Lying on your back is the best sleeping position for calcific tendonitis. Use a pillow under your knees to ease the strain on your back and neck.
  4. Sleeping on your non-affected side with a pillow between your knees to support them. This helps keep your spine straight and reduces strain on your hurting shoulder.
woman using pillows to help her sleep

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.

Frozen Shoulder

When suffering from a frozen shoulder, you will have additional difficulty as your shoulder movement is severely reduced.

To sleep with shoulder pain from frozen shoulder, try sleeping on your back or the non-affected side. We’ve created an article specifically for sleeping with a frozen shoulder here!

man having a nice sleep

Other Sleeping Positions

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.

man with shoulder pain on both sides

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.

For some procedures, such as subacromial decompression surgery, the shoulder immobilizer is only there for comfort. If you feel more comfortable not using the sling at night, you can take it off and sleep using the advice above.

YouTube video
“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 good and restful sleep – try to stay away from screens for at least an hour before bedtime.


Frequently Asked Questions

What are the best sleeping positions for shoulder pain?

The best sleeping positions for shoulder pain are typically on your back or on the opposite side of the affected shoulder. Sleeping on your back with a pillow under your knees or on your side with a pillow between your knees can help relieve pressure on the shoulder.

What exercises can help with shoulder pain?

Doing some gentle stretching and strengthening exercises for the shoulder before bedtime can help relieve pain and sleep.

Should I apply cold or heat to reduce shoulder pain?

If you’re suffering from an inflammatory condition such as bursitis or frozen shoulder, it’s recommended to use an ice pack or frozen peas. But if it’s a muscular ache, try using a hot water bottle before bed to ease discomfort.

What Shoulder Services Do We Offer?

Shoulder Pain Assessment

Shoulder Pain is frustrating and can impact both your sleep and your mental health. Dr. Mehta is a shoulder doctor and can diagnose your pain, offering various surgical and non-surgical treatments.

Shoulder Surgery

If your shoulder condition is severe, or nothing you have tried has helped, Dr. Mehta can advise you on the options for surgery. She is a shoulder specialist and can offer expert opinion and care.

Treatment of Shoulder Conditions

Including

Frozen Shoulder

Frozen shoulder makes your shoulder stiff and can make movement painful.

Bicep Tendinitis

Bicep tendonitis causes pain in your upper arm and can lead to a bicep tendon tear.

Shoulder Impingement

Shoulder impingement makes it difficult to raise your arms above your head.

Shoulder Bursitis

Shoulder bursitis gives you a tender shoulder and makes it difficult to sleep.

Rotator Cuff Tear

Rotator cuff tears can occur during sports and make overhead movements difficult.

Dislocated Shoulder

Shoulder dislocation causes a disformed and painful shoulder and can be recurrent.

Shoulder Separation

Shoulder separation is a sprain in the AC joint near your shoulder.

And Many More!

Dr. Mehta offers diagnosis and treatment of all shoulder conditions and can offer her specialist opinion as an expert shoulder doctor.

Expert Advice For Shoulder Problems