Shoulder Pain from Sleeping on Side: What to Do

Shoulder Pain from Sleeping on Side: What to Do

By Professional Physical Therapy

Even though sleeping on your side is the most popular sleeping position – if you wake up with arm numbness or your shoulder hurts, this could be a sign you are injuring your shoulder while you are sleeping. Sleeping through the night on your shoulder can cause strain on your shoulders resulting in stiffness, soreness or pain over time.

Before we share tips to help prevent shoulder pain at night, you need to understand what can be causing the pain and then learn what you can do to get shoulder pain relief.

Common Causes of Pain from Sleeping on Side

If you are a side-sleeper you may spend a good part of the night lying directly on a nerve in your arm. There are three major nerves in our arm and if one of these nerves is irritated, you will feel pain or discomfort in your hand or arm. The most common nerve injury from sleeping on your side is irritation to the Median nerve, known as Carpal Tunnel Syndrome . The median nerve and the tendons of the fingers pass through the carpal tunnel or narrow passageway located in the wrist. If this nerve is aggravated, you will feel tingling and numbness in the palm of your hand and/or fingers.

If it’s shoulder pain you are feeling then the cause may be coming from an underlying medical condition you may have, such as frozen shoulder. Other common shoulder conditions that can cause pain at night includes:

  • Rotator Cuff Injury: Overuse of the rotator cuff (group of four muscles and their tendons that stabilize the shoulder joint) can contribute to issues such as tendonitis, strains, and partial or complete tears of the tendons.
  • Shoulder Bursitis: Inflammation caused by the bursa (a small fluid-filled sac) rubbing against the joint causing pain in the joints, stiffness, and a limited range of motion.
  • Shoulder Osteoarthritis: Is the most common form of arthritis and occurs when cartilage (the material that cushions the end of your bones) degrades over time, causing stiffness and pain.
  • Shoulder Impingement: Condition caused by the inflammation of the tendons of the rotator cuff that causes shoulder pain, stiffness, and limitations in movement.

 Tips to Prevent Shoulder Pain at Night

One of the most effective ways to prevent shoulder pain while sleeping is to sleep in a different position. While this might seem impossible, you can train yourself to sleep in a different position over time. Here are a few tips to prevent shoulder pain so you can get a pain-free night’s sleep.

  • Sleep on your back or position that causes no pressure on the shoulder: Sleeping in an inclined position (by using pillows or raising the head of the bed) can help keep you from rolling onto your side.
  • Use pillows to support your shoulder: Try surrounding yourself with pillows to create a physical barrier to prevent you from turning. A good pillow that fits the natural curve of the neck and fills the gap between your head and shoulder can also help.
  • Sleep on the other side: If possible, consider sleeping on the unaffected shoulder.
  • Change your mattress: If your mattress is too hard or too soft, you can develop shoulder pain from sleeping. If you like a firm mattress, then a topper could be your best option.
  • Stay active during the day: Staying active boosts your health and can assist in healing shoulder injuries faster.
  • Maintain healthy sleeping habits: This means avoiding your phone or TV before sleeping and keeping your room dark and at a cool temperature to eliminate sleep interruptions.

Stretches to Relieve Shoulder Pain

You can also consider doing shoulder stretches before and after sleeping to help elongate your muscles and prevent them from stiffening. Professional PT’s Donis Gil, Certified Athletic Trainer shares 4 simple stretches to help decrease shoulder discomfort. Do each stretch for 30 seconds, 3 times. Repeat as needed, only if you feel a nice stretch without pain.

  1. Doorway stretch: Stand in a doorway with both hands on the door frame, elbows at shoulder height. Take a small step forward with one foot and gently lean forward until you feel a stretch in your chest and shoulders.
  2. Posterior Capsule Stretch: Take elbow across your body with hand on opposite side of shoulder and pull out slightly and then pull across to feel stretch in back of shoulder.
  3. Child’s Pose: Start on your hands and knees. Sit back onto your heels, stretching your arms out in front of you. Rest your forehead on the floor while holding the stretch.
  4. Shoulder Rolls: Stand up straight with your feet shoulder-width apart. Roll your shoulders forward in a circular motion, making large circles. Repeat for 10-15 circles and then switch to backwards rolls.

Can Physical Therapy help with Shoulder or Hand Pain from Sleeping on Your Side?

While simple at-home exercises can help lessen the shoulder pain, it is recommended that you seek treatment to determine the underlying cause of your shoulder pain from sleeping on your side – and a licensed physical therapist can help.

If you sleep on your side and are experiencing pain in your hands, then you should seek help from an Occupational Therapist that specializes in treating hand conditions (also known as a certified Occupational Therapist/Hand Therapist). An OT/hand therapist can instruct you in specific exercises and possible splinting to help reduce or eliminate your symptoms.

When it comes to shoulder injuries or pain, the goal of physical therapy is to gradually increase a person’s strength and range of mobility. A certified Physical Therapist or certified Occupational Therapist/Hand Therapist can help identify the underlying cause and advise you on which exercises are safe and which activities to avoid.

When to See a doctor or Occupational/Physical Therapist

According to medical experts, you should call a doctor or occupational/physical therapist if you are experiencing any of the following.

  • Pain that does not improve and persists for more than a few weeks
  • Grinding, snapping, clicking, or popping noises in the shoulder
  • Previous shoulder injury or dislocation
  • Inability to perform daily tasks
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Swelling or visible growth or mass on the shoulder

At Professional Physical Therapy, we can help pinpoint the cause of your shoulder pain and work with you to develop a physical therapy plan specifically suited to your needs. If you are experiencing shoulder pain and you are ready to get a good night’s sleep, contact us today for more information or to schedule an appointment.

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