Sleep Tips for Easing Shoulder Pain

Medically Reviewed By Gregory Minnis, DPT
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A good night’s sleep is a key to good health. However, if you are living with shoulder pain, it can be difficult to sleep well. Shoulder pain is common and can come from injuries, such as rotator cuff tears. It can also result from chronic conditions such as osteoarthritis.

When sleeping with shoulder pain, you may need to make some changes to your sleep habits. This article will discuss ways you can help relieve shoulder pain symptoms during sleep, including sleeping positions and products that can improve the quality of your rest.

Use a different pillow

Woman asleep in bed with face mask on lying on back
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If you are waking up with a sore, aching shoulder, you may consider changing your pillow.

A recent study of Korean adults, aged 20–76 years, finds that peanut-shaped pillows provided the best shoulder comfort. These U-shaped pillows have different heights to support your head and neck.

The research also suggests that pillows made with materials such as latex and memory foam can reduce shoulder pain and result in better sleep.

For side sleepers with shoulder pain, the study indicates it may help to sleep with a thicker pillow to improve head and neck support.

Avoid sleeping on your stomach

If you sleep on your stomach, your favorite position may be contributing to your symptoms. A 2018 study published in BMC Musculoskeletal Disorders finds an association between primarily sleeping on the stomach with the arms up and symptoms of shoulder pain.

If you prefer stomach sleeping, UC San Diego Health advises using a thin pillow to reduce the angle of your neck as you sleep. They also suggest placing a pillow under your pelvis to help align your spine.

Avoid sleep on the side that hurts

If you are a side sleeper, you may find yourself naturally rolling to your preferred sleeping side — even if it causes pain.

The Arthritis Foundation suggests placing a thick pillow under the arm of your affected shoulder to keep it elevated while you sleep. It also recommends that back sleepers place pillows under each arm or sleep on a wedge that keeps their upper body at a 45-degree angle.

Consider a smart mattress

The National Sleep Foundation (NSF) lists a variety of technological products that can help people learn more about the way they sleep and improve their sleep quality. This includes a smart mattress, which has internal sensors that can sense your sleep position.

The NSF goes on to mention one type of smart mattress that can automatically increase or decrease the amount of firmness as you change positions while you sleep. You can also manually change the level of pressure and support based on your preferences or pain relief needs.

Practice good sleep hygiene

For anyone with or without shoulder pain, it is important to practice good sleep hygiene. This means establishing healthy habits that encourage quality sleep.

The NSF lists these tips for practicing good sleep hygiene:

  • Avoid eating or drinking alcohol within 2–3 hours of going to sleep.
  • Limit caffeine intake as you get closer to bedtime.
  • Keep phones, tablets, or TVs out of your bedroom.
  • Choose bedding that allows you to sleep at a comfortable temperature.
  • Use a white noise machine or fan to block outside sources of noise.
  • When possible, go to sleep and wake up at the same times each day to train your body when it is time to sleep.

See your healthcare professional

If at-home changes are not effective in managing your shoulder pain while you sleep, contact your doctor or another medical professional.

Your orthopedic surgeon can discuss options to treat the condition causing your shoulder pain. These may include prescription pain medications, numbing injections, or steroids such as cortisone.

For more severe conditions, doctors may recommend surgery. Research published in Arthroscopy found that for people with shoulder arthritis or a rotator cuff tear, surgery to treat the condition significantly improved their self-reported sleep quality.

A specialist may also refer you to a physical therapist who can provide guidance on exercises that can improve your muscle strength to better support your shoulder.

Your doctor may also refer you to a sleep medicine specialist who can address possible sleep disorders, including sleep apnea, insomnia, and restless legs syndrome.

Summary

Shoulder pain can occur for a variety of reasons, including a shoulder injury or a chronic condition such as osteoarthritis. Pain in the shoulder can make sleep difficult.

Making some changes to your sleep routine can help improve your symptoms and allow you to get quality rest. These include not sleeping on your stomach, supporting your shoulder with pillows, considering technology such as a smart mattress, and practicing good sleep habits.

If your symptoms do not improve with these changes, talk with a healthcare professional. They can discuss treatment options for your shoulder pain. They may also refer you to different specialists who can evaluate your condition and help improve both your symptoms and your sleep quality.

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Medical Reviewer: Gregory Minnis, DPT
Last Review Date: 2022 Jan 25
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