The Best Sleeping Positions For Shoulder Pain

Waking up with pain in the back, neck or shoulders is far from pleasant. Shoulder pain can be extremely difficult to deal with on a daily basis, especially if your job requires full mobility and physical strain.

Even sitting in the office for hours can be a painful and unpleasant experience with pain in the shoulders. Shoulder pain affects your posture, mobility, and can cause further health issues, or pain that moves from shoulders to the lower back and legs.

So, if you clicked on this article, chances are you’re waking up experiencing pain in the shoulders. Luckily, you’re at the right place, as we’re going to look in the following paragraphs at the best sleeping positions for people experiencing shoulder pain. So, let’s get started!

The Anatomy of Shoulders

Shoulder JointTerry Cralle, MS, RN, CPHQ

Before we get into the sleeping positions, it is important to know how shoulders work and why is it that we experience pain in this area.

For starters, shoulders are commonly described as the ‘ball and socket joints’. This means that the connection between the upper body (shoulders) and the arms happens via the upper arm bone, also known as ‘the ball’.

Your arm is, however, completely mobile thanks to the concave part of the shoulder blade, also known as ‘the socket’. The upper arm bone is kept secure in place thanks to the muscles, tendons and soft tissues, all known as the rotator cuff. This construction allows you to complete a range of motion in shoulders and arms.

Causes of Shoulder Pain

Causes of Shoulder PainTerry Cralle, MS, RN, CPHQ

Now that we know the anatomy of the shoulder, it is easier to understand the causes of pain in this region.

The most common causes of shoulder pain are caused by the injury to the rotator cuff. There is usually a strain of muscles and tendons, often caused by uncomfortable and improper sleep positions.

When you ‘sleep wrong’ on a shoulder, you cause strain, interrupted blood flow, extra pressure on the neck, shoulder, and arm, which results in pain and an awkward tingling and prickling sensation.

This is where we come to the topic of choosing the best sleeping position to combat shoulder pain.

4 Best Sleeping Positions For Shoulder Pain

Changing the way you sleep can be the main strategy to get pain relief and get rid of shoulder pain once and for all. Here are the best sleeping positions you should try tonight;

Sleeping on the side (on the shoulder that doesn’t hurt)

Sleeping on the side (on the shoulder that doesn't hurt)Terry Cralle, MS, RN, CPHQ

This sleep position is intended to provide temporary relief to the hurting shoulder. By sleeping on the other, healthy, side and shoulder, you’re allowing the ‘injured’ shoulder to heal and recover from the little injuries of the muscles and tendons.

However, to avoid further damage to the shoulder, make sure to place a small pillow in the underarm area. This will provide support for the injured shoulder, as well as relief and less pressure on the main pressure points (bones and muscles in the shoulder area).

Once your hurt shoulder has healed, do not sleep on your sides again. This might cause yet another injury to your shoulder, as you’re putting all of the body’s pressure on these two shoulder joints.

Sleeping with arms at sides – Supine Position

Sleeping with arms at sides – Supine PositionTerry Cralle, MS, RN, CPHQ

Sleeping with arms at side, or supine position means that you’re lying horizontally on your back. This sleeping position has shown to put the least pressure on the joint areas in the shoulders, and the rest of the body. It allows a neutral arm, neck, shoulder and back position, which aligns with the spine perfectly.

Also known as the soldier’s sleep position, the supine position allows the optimal neck and spine alignment, less muscle tension and generally allows the body to relax and release strain and tension.

It is important to point out that during the supine sleeping position you should not twist your body and face your head to one or the other side. To avoid shoulder pain, the head needs to face up, arms need to lay parallel to the body and the legs need to be straight.

Sleeping with arms under or above the head – Supine Position

Sleeping with arms under or above the head – Supine PositionTerry Cralle, MS, RN, CPHQ

A variation to the previous supine position is the supine position where the arms are placed under the head or stretched above the head. This is a rather unusual sleeping position, and not many people actually sleep like this.

However, for those experiencing shoulder pain, this sleeping position can be beneficial. By extending your arms behind your head, or placing them under your head, there will be the lowest subacromial or shoulder pressure on the muscles and tendons. Just like in the regular soldier sleeping position, this position also requires a horizontal laying, head facing up and legs stretched out.

For people experiencing pain in the knees, they can place a pillow underneath their knees to provide extra support in this sleeping position.

Moreover, during this position, you should not face one or the other side, as you might cause an increase in neck stretch.

Sleeping with arms under or next to the pillow – prone position

Sleeping with arms under or next to the pillow – prone positionTerry Cralle, MS, RN, CPHQ

Studies have shown that people experiencing pain during shoulder rotation caused by improper sleeping positions should sleep in a prone position. So long you avoid hyperextension of arms, there should be no shoulder injuries due to the prone position.

To be more precise, the arms need to be carefully placed next to the pillow or slightly under the pillow. This way you will avoid stretching the arm and shoulder muscles and you’ll be able to keep the arms in a neutral position where the elbows are bent at 90°.

The shoulder should not be hyperextended. Should you feel pain and tension in the shoulder area, or weakness and numbness in arms while in this sleeping position, then make sure to choose one of the abovementioned sleeping positions instead.

Which Sleeping Position Is The Best For A Frozen Shoulder?

Which sleeping position is the best for a frozen shoulderTerry Cralle, MS, RN, CPHQ

Frozen shoulder is a condition where the connective tissue in the shoulder is inflamed and stiff. People who experience this condition are often unable to move, as movement causes more pain.

The frozen shoulder appears gradually; at first, the pain will increase and the range of motion will decrease, then the pain will decrease, but the stiffness will remain (known as the frozen phase).

Luckily, after several months the shoulder will regain its movement and the pain will disappear completely, something that is known as the thawing phase.

But, how can you sleep during the frozen phase? Which position is the best to avoid causing more shoulder pain? In order to sleep comfortably with a frozen shoulder, you should;

Sleep on your back, for starters. Sleeping on the back reduces pressure from the shoulders, neck, and back.

It is important to place a pillow under your head in such a way that it fits the neck curve perfectly.

Then, you will place a pillow under each arm, while your arms are positioned and bent at 90°, while your lower arm or forearm is resting on your stomach.

To further reduce pressure from the main pressure points, you should place one or two pillows under your knees.

Other Tips For Sleeping With Shoulder Pain

When experiencing shoulder pain, it is not only important to change the sleeping position, but also to adjust your sleeping environment as well. Here’s how you can do it;

  • Utilize a body pillow – using a body pillow can help you stay stable during the night, without rolling onto your sore and injured should, or rolling onto the sides where the shoulder pain usually comes from. Try purchasing a full-size body pillow, or use several smaller pillows and place them between or under the knees, under your arms and around your back, for extra support.
  • Invest in a good head pillow – by investing in a good head pillow, you will ensure that your head and neck are always in line with your spine. There will be no extra tension on your neck, and therefore, you will reduce the chance of a sore shoulder as well. Such a pillow will reduce the pressure on the shoulders and they will be relaxed throughout the night. If your pillow doesn’t cover the whole neck area, you can also add a small, rolled-up towel under the neck, for example.
  • Invest in a proper mattress – a good mattress can help you heal the shoulder pain and avoid shoulder pain in the future. A proper mattress needs to be soft enough to support and cushion all the painful joints in your body, including the shoulders. However, it also needs to be firm enough not to cause any further damage to the spine, shoulders, neck, lower back, and knees. A mattress that is too firm might add more pressure to your joints than it should, and a mattress that is too soft will hurt your back and spine as it won’t provide the necessary support.

Final Words

Shoulder pain is a rather tricky condition; it does not only decrease your range of motion and things you can do, but it also affects the quality of your sleep.

You toss and turn trying to find the best position for your shoulder, but usually, nothing works properly. We hope that the recommended sleeping positions in this article are helpful. If you’re still experiencing shoulder pain after changing the sleeping position, then you should visit a medical professional for further discussion and consultation.