How to Relieve Shoulder Pain From Sleeping on the Side

The information in this article is for educational purposes only and should not be considered medical advice. [Read our full health disclaimer]

Updated on February 16, 2023

Do you struggle to fall asleep at night because of shoulder pain or are you just wondering whether sleeping on side shoulder pain is even a thing?

Sleep-related shoulder pain is pretty common and it has several possible causes. If you have shoulder pain, you must be wondering how to relieve shoulder pain from sleeping on side? 

A Woman in Black Tank Top Touching Her Shoulder

Here are some methods you can try: 

  • Exercise
  • Physical Therapy
  • Apply a hot or cold compress to the area
  • Anti – inflammatories for pain relief
  • Surgery (if the cause is a shoulder injury)

In this article, we’ll cover all the causes in detail as well as provide you with information on the best potential treatments for relieving shoulder pain and how to prevent it.

Is Arm and Shoulder Pain From Sleeping On Side Normal?

Sleeping on the side shouldn’t directly cause shoulder pain, but it may make certain underlying injuries worse.

However, simply put, when you sleep on your side, your shoulder takes on extra pressure. A study on shoulder pain in association with sleeping positions found that 67% of participants had shoulder pain on the side they sleep on.

Woman experiencing shoulder pain

This is because when you sleep on one side of your body, the weight of your body and head can put pressure on the shoulder joint, leading to discomfort and even chronic pain.

Another study, even though it suggests a causal correlation between sleeping on the side and shoulder pain, doesn’t manage to prove it.

Given the plethora of other potential causes of shoulder pain, you simply can’t know for sure whether the sleeping position is your only culprit. That’s the bad news. The good news is that if sleeping on your side does indeed cause shoulder pain, you can solve it rather easily.

Let’s go over the common causes first.

Causes of Shoulder Pain

Simply put, our shoulders are not meant to carry the weight of our whole bodies, and, to an extent, that’s what happens when sleeping on the side. But, as we said, shoulder pain could also occur as a result of a shoulder injury or other conditions.

Rotator Cuff Injury (RCI)

Rotator cuff injury is the most common and prominent cause of shoulder pain. The collection of tendons that surrounds our shoulder joints is called a rotator cuff. It attaches the shoulder blade end of the upper arm bone within the shallow socket of the shoulder. This way, the shoulder remains in the socket without restricting your arm movements.

hand massaging shoulders

Unfortunately, rotator cuff injuries can occur when these tendons become inflamed or even partially or completely torn. This can happen due to an injury, such as falling with an outstretched arm or lifting a heavy load, or from participating in sports that use the shoulder joint frequently, like baseball, tennis, or rowing.

Through overuse or overextension of shoulder muscles during sports, inflammation can occur, and further aggravating it can cause RCI.

But, even seemingly negligible day-to-day activities that require overhead use of your arms like painting and construction can also cause this issue.

If a rotator cuff injury is left untreated, it may severely restrict its function and range of motion it has. If torn, partial rotator cuff tears can progress to full-blown tears.

Symptoms

  • Loss of motion or stiffness.
  • Pain that gets worse when you perform activities like throwing, lifting, or reaching behind your back.
  • Dull pain deep in the shoulder.
  • Pain while sleeping on the side.

Frozen Shoulder

A “frozen shoulder” or adhesive capsulitis occurs when joint tissue gets progressively thicker and thicker, ultimately limiting your range of motion due to the development of scar tissue.

man holding his left shoulder

Symptoms

  • Stiffness
  • Swelling
  • Pain

Causes

While it’s not exactly known what causes this condition, underuse or complete immobilization (due to a severe injury) of the shoulder can cause a “frozen shoulder.” It’s also known to happen in patients recovering from certain medical conditions like stroke, heart disease, thyroid disease, or Parkinson’s disease.

Shoulder Impingement Syndrome

Shoulder impingement syndrome is a condition that occurs when the soft tissues around the rotator cuff become caught or rub against nearby tissue or bone as you move your arm.

This can be caused by swelling of the tendons, inflammation of the bursa, bone spurs, or an acromion that is curved or hooked instead of being flat. The pain associated with shoulder impingement syndrome can range from mild to severe and may worsen over time if not treated properly.

Woman Taping Client Back

Treatment for shoulder impingement syndrome typically involves rest, physical therapy, anti-inflammatory medications, and sometimes corticosteroid injections. Physical therapy exercises are designed to strengthen the muscles in the shoulder and improve flexibility in order to reduce pain and improve mobility.

Surgery may be necessary in some cases if other treatments have failed to provide relief. It is important to seek medical attention if you experience any symptoms of shoulder impingement syndrome so that it can be properly diagnosed and treated.

Symptoms

  • Pain while sleeping on the affected side.
  • A feeling of weakness in the affected arm or shoulder.
  • Persistent pain in the shoulder.

Shoulder Bursitis

Shoulder bursitis is a condition that occurs when the bursae, which are small, fluid-filled sacs that cushion the tissues around your joints, become inflamed. The shoulder is one of the most common locations for bursitis to occur.

It can be caused by an injury to the shoulder or by repetitive actions that overwork the joint. In some cases, however, the cause may be unknown.

man carrying barbell at the gym

Symptoms of shoulder bursitis include pain and tenderness in the affected area, swelling and stiffness in the joint, difficulty moving your arm or shoulder normally, and a grinding sensation when you move your arm.

Treatment typically involves rest and physical therapy to help reduce inflammation and improve the range of motion.

Your doctor may also recommend medications such as nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) to help reduce pain and swelling. Surgery may be necessary if other treatments fail to provide relief.

The symptoms of shoulder bursitis are the following:

Symptoms

  • Swelling & redness.
  • Stiffness of the affected area.
  • Tenderness or localized aching in the shoulder.
  • Pain when pressure is applied on that area.

Shoulder Osteoarthritis

Osteoarthritis happens when the cartilage between the bones starts to break down. The cartilage cushions the joints, among other things. This condition may also affect various parts of the body.

Symptoms

  • Stiffness or loss of range of motion.
  • Clicking or grinding sound that results when you move your shoulder.
  • Pain that occurs during rest or sleeping.

Sleeping Position

Neck and shoulder pain from sleeping is a common issue that can be caused by a variety of factors. Most commonly, it is due to injury of the soft tissue in the neck and shoulders, such as muscles, rotator cuff tendons, and ligaments. This can lead to pain, stiffness, muscle spasms, and even headaches.

Woman Lying on Bed With Tattoo on Her Body

Pain often occurs on one side of the neck but can also occur on both sides. Holding your neck in an awkward position for long periods of time can also cause muscle spasms and strains in the neck and shoulder area.

Some of the most common postures that can provoke neck and shoulder pain include sleeping on a pillow that is too high or too flat. This causes your head to be held at an angle that puts strain on your neck muscles which can lead to pain over time.

Additionally, if you sleep with your arms above your head or tucked under your body this can put pressure on your shoulders leading to discomfort or even pain when you wake up in the morning. It’s important to find a comfortable position that doesn’t put a strain on any part of your body so you can wake up feeling refreshed without any aches or pains.

How To Relieve Shoulder Pain from Side Sleeping?

First, find out the exact cause of your shoulder pain and treat it accordingly. If you think that the pain stems from sleeping on the side, make sure to change sleeping positions for a couple of days, and see if it subsides. Other than that, we’ll suggest several methods below.

If you have a more severe condition, please consult your physician for a correct diagnosis before trying out any of them.

Exercise Your Shoulder

Home exercises and physical therapy help to gradually increase the endurance of shoulder muscles. This way, the range of mobility and strength of your shoulders will increase.

woman performing yoga

The type of exercise to treat shoulder pain largely depends on the underlying cause. Here are some strengthening exercises that you can apply:

  • Upper Extremity Strengthening

This exercise consists of lifting light weights. You have to lie on your left side, keep the weight on your right hand, and raise the forearm while keeping your elbow near your side.

You can adjust it according to your comfort level and don’t forget to switch sides.

  • Rotator Cuff Strengthening

For this exercise, you have to take a resistance band and loop it around the knob of any closed door. Afterward, grab the other end of the band.

Then, pull the band downward across your stomach while keeping your elbow at a 90-degree angle. Repeat the exercise at least 5-10 times and switch sides.

Physical Therapy

Physical therapy is a great way to treat many types of pain and injuries. It can help reduce pain, improve mobility, and increase strength.

Physical therapists are trained to assess the underlying cause of an injury or condition and create a personalized treatment plan that includes exercises, stretches, and other activities. Home exercises are also important for maintaining progress between physical therapy sessions.

Swimming is an excellent form of physical therapy because it reduces the burden of gravity on the joints while still providing resistance to build up strength and mobility. Swimming can be especially beneficial for people with shoulder pain as it allows them to move their arms without putting too much strain on the joint.

Man swimming underwater in olympic pool

A physical therapist will be able to advise which exercises are safe for a person’s specific condition and which activities should be avoided in order to prevent further injury or aggravation. With the right guidance from a physical therapist, people can use physical therapy and regular exercise to effectively manage their shoulder pain.

Apply Heat & Ice

Another helpful way of treating shoulder pain is to apply heat or ice to the affected area. The application of ice/heat will depend upon the kind of symptoms you are experiencing. Here are some valuable tips:

  • Moist heat helps to ease stiff joints and relax muscles.
  • In tendonitis, ice helps numb pain and reduce inflammation.
  • For strains, heat helps to reduce stiffness after the inflammation has gone down.

Medication

Pain and inflammation in the shoulder can be incredibly debilitating, making it difficult to perform everyday tasks. Fortunately, there are a number of treatments available that can help reduce pain and inflammation.

Tylenol box beside bed on nightstand

Over-the-counter pain medications such as acetaminophen (Tylenol) or nonsteroidal anti-inflammatories (NSAIDs) are often the first line of treatment for most types of shoulder pain. These medications work by reducing inflammation and providing relief from pain.

People with arthritis, shoulder impingement, or inflammation in the shoulder may also find that resting the joint helps reduce pain. Additionally, physical therapy exercises can help strengthen the muscles around the joint and improve range of motion.

Shockwave therapy is another option for reducing shoulder pain and inflammation. This type of therapy uses sound waves to stimulate healing in damaged tissues and promote blood flow to the area. It has been found to be effective at reducing chronic shoulder pain caused by tendonitis or bursitis.

While this type of therapy is generally safe, it should only be used under medical supervision as it can cause side effects such as bruising or swelling at the site of treatment. In addition to these treatments, lifestyle changes such as maintaining a healthy weight and avoiding activities that aggravate your symptoms

Surgery

Close-up Photo of a Stethoscope

If none of the above treatment methods don’t help, depending on the severity of your injury, the doctor may recommend surgery.

For instance, in osteoarthritis, the surgeon replaces the affected joint with an artificial implant. Other surgeries for shoulder impingement include RCI surgery or bursectomy.

Ways to Prevent Shoulder Pain

Other than alternating your sleeping position, here are the steps you can take to prevent shoulder pain.

Enhance Sleep Hygiene

String Lights Hanged on Bed Frame

Believe it or not, general physical pain can get worse when you don’t get enough sleep. When you are sleep-deprived, two various kinds of proteins are produced in the body, namely C-reactive protein and interleukin. The elevated level of these proteins makes your body feel more pain.

Sleep hygiene is a series of steps that promotes a good night’s sleep by regulating your circadian rhythm. Here are some tips to improve sleep hygiene:

  • Create a noise-free sleep environment.
  • Avoid consuming stimulants like coffee or tea before bedtime.
  • Don’t take long naps (more than 30 minutes) during the day.
  • Learning how to sleep when hungry might also help.
  • Form a relaxing bedtime routine. It could be anything like sipping a calming, warm drink, a soothing bath, light meditation/yoga, reading a book, or even writing down your thoughts. Anything goes and it’s entirely up to you – just make sure to stick to it.

Change the Mattress

In addition to choosing the right pillow, it’s also important to make sure you have a comfortable mattress that supports your body properly. A mattress that is too soft or too hard can cause pressure points which can lead to pain in the neck and shoulders.

White linen blanket hanging over side of the bed

If you find yourself waking up with soreness in these areas, it may be time to invest in a new mattress. Taking care of your body while sleeping by choosing the right pillow and mattress can help prevent neck and shoulder pain from occurring during sleep.

Research on the effects of an adapted mattress proved that the best mattress for shoulder pain is a medium-firm mattress that helps to lessen musculoskeletal pain.

The Best Sleep Position for Shoulder Pain

You should sleep in the position that’s most comfortable for you. This is yet another thing that’s entirely subjective, but we can give you some tips on what works for a lot of people.

Woman in White Shirt Napping on Bed

For most people, the best way to relieve shoulder pain is to sleep on your back while providing adequate support to your lower legs, back, and neck. Sleeping on your stomach could also be helpful, but some people find it uncomfortable, and you may end up with back pain. If you prefer to sleep on your back, use a softer mattress to provide it with proper support.

Use The Right Pillow

Having the right pillow is essential for preventing neck and shoulder pain from sleeping. The wrong pillow can cause your neck to be in an unnatural position, leading to discomfort and neck pain.

To ensure that your neck is properly supported while you sleep, it is important to choose a pillow that keeps your neck in a neutral alignment. This means that the natural curve of your neck should be supported and maintained.

Bunch of pillow on top of bed

When selecting a pillow, it is important to avoid pillows that are too flat or too high. A firm contour pillow is recommended as it provides extra support under your neck as you sleep. The contour shape helps keep your head and neck in the correct position, reducing strain on the muscles and joints in the area.

Additionally, if you tend to sleep on your side or stomach, consider using a special pillow designed specifically for those positions. Taking these steps can help reduce or prevent neck and shoulder pain from sleeping.

Changing the pillow once it loses shape or after every 18 months is also advised.

  • A firm and thick pillow works best for side sleepers.
  • Stomach sleepers need a “skinny” pillow.
  • A thin pillow that is thick at the bottom and cradles the neck is good for back sleepers.

Best Pillow Positioning for Shoulder Pain

While pillow positioning may not be what you first think of when tackling shoulder pain, anecdotally, it’s been known to help. Here are some specific pillow configurations and angles that help with some types of shoulder pain.

Sleeping on the Back With a Pillow Under the Armpits

Photo of a Woman Sleeping Near Fluffy Clouds

The best sleeping position for shoulder pain is sleeping on the back. This way, your shoulder remains stress-free and your spine is in a neutral position and aligned correctly. However, some people do notice stiffness or sore shoulders even when sleeping on their back. If you’re one, place a pillow under your armpit beneath the affected shoulder.

Sleeping on the Side With a Pillow Under the Armpits

As we said, side sleepers should avoid sleeping on the affected shoulder, but if you simply can’t get used to another position, try sleeping on the other shoulder. Moreover, you should place one pillow under your affected shoulder’s armpit.

FAQs

Conclusion

When you sleep on your side, extra pressure is exerted on your shoulder, which may in turn cause pain or irritation. While there’s no direct causal correlation between sleeping on the side and shoulder pain, sleeping on the side may aggravate underlying injuries.

There are various causes of shoulder pain, with the most common ones being bursitis, osteoarthritis, and rotator cuff injury. Always make sure to contact your physician before undergoing any therapy or exercises. Staying active and OTC painkillers are a good solution in most cases.

Article Sources

  1. Gordon, S. J., Grimmer-Somers, K. A., & Trott, P. H. (2010). Pillow use: the behavior of cervical stiffness, headache and scapular/arm pain. Journal of pain research, 3:137–145. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/21197317/
  2. Son, J., Jung, S., Song, H., et al., (2020). A Survey of Koreans on Sleep Habits and Sleeping Symptoms Relating to Pillow Comfort and Support. International journal of environmental research and public health, 17(1):302. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/31906363/
  3. Jacobson, B. H., Boolani, A., Dunklee, G., et al.,(2010). Effect of prescribed sleep surfaces on back pain and sleep quality in patients diagnosed with low back and shoulder pain. Applied ergonomics, 42(1):91–97. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/20579971/
  4. Kempf, B., & Kongsted, A. (2012). Association between the side of unilateral shoulder pain and preferred sleeping position: a cross-sectional study of 83 Danish patients. Journal of manipulative and physiological therapeutics, 35(5):407-412. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/22608285/
  5. Zenian, J. (2010). Sleep position and shoulder pain. Medical hypotheses, 74(4):639-643. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/20036076/
Bree Taylor - Lead Editor

Lead Editor

Bree is an interior designer with a passion for helping people improve their sleep quality.

She specializes in creating comfortable and functional bedroom spaces that promote a good night’s rest.

When she’s not testing mattresses or helping people get the best rest possible, Bree loves to travel and explore new cultures.

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