How to Sleep On Your Side Without Hurting Your Shoulder (6 Solutions to Try)
To sleep on your side without hurting your shoulder, reconsider your bedding situation. Soft mattresses and larger pillows may be better for side sleepers, and body pillows can also help relieve pressure. Depending on the source of the pain, rehabilitation and pain management may also be necessary.
Shoulder pain can be a direct result of sleeping too much on one side. It can also be a byproduct of pre-existing conditions.
Switching to a softer bed, using thicker head pillows, and supporting the shoulders with body pillows can relieve pain.
Daytime rehabilitation and pain management may be necessary for some people.
Did you know?
One study found that 76% of people who sleep in bed with a partner favor the shoulder opposite that partner. This may be another way that one shoulder gets more worn down than the other.
Some people can spend hours on their sides before rolling out of bed, fresh as a daisy. Others need to put in a little more effort to feel great in the morning.
If you’re among those looking for a way to sleep on your side without hurting your shoulder, there’s good news for you. It may take some trial and error, but there are plenty of ways to set your joints up for success.
Step 1: Figure Out Why Your Shoulders Hurt When You Sleep
Before making major changes to your nightly or daily routine, you should first try to lock down the reason you’re waking up with shoulder pain. For some this will be obvious, but others may need to check in with a medical professional.
One important factor to examine is when your shoulder hurts. Depending on the time it flairs up, you may be looking at a specific problem.
Side Sleeper Shoulder Pain
If you feel relatively fine when you slip into bed but the pain starts to radiate a little more as the night goes on, the source could be too much stress on one shoulder throughout the night. Those sleeping on firm mattresses are particularly at risk here.
One 2012 study from the Journal of Manipulative and Physiological Therapeutics found that a lot of this pain stems from spending too much time on one shoulder. In fact 67% of patients in that study spent more time sleeping on their painful side.
Injuries and Surgeries
One of the more obvious causes of pain from sleeping on the arm is pre-existing injuries. This could be an acute injury from something like a car crash or it could be a lingering problem stemming from a gym or sports mishap.
Surgery recovery is another area that might leave you looking for relief from shoulder pain at night. Fortunately, there are ways to sleep around these troubles.
On top of the more clear-cut cases, there could also be lingering health problems causing you pain. Some of these include:
- Shoulder bursitis. This happens when the thin layer protecting your skin from your bones gets inflamed. This can cause radiating pain.
- Osteoarthritis. This becomes more common with age as the cartilage covering our bones wears down and can quickly lead to shoulder pain from sleeping on the side.
- Bone spurs. These painful growths can occur in many body parts and are sometimes a byproduct of osteoarthritis.
- Shoulder impingement. Technically a type of overuse injury caused by the shoulder blade rubbing against the rotator cuff. However, it may go unnoticed in many people as it often takes time to build up.
1. Reconsider Your Mattress
If you feel fine when you head to bed but encounter pain in the middle of the night or early in the morning, your bed could be causing the shoulder pain. Unfortunately, the science hasn’t quite solved this issue.
Studies show that medium-firm mattresses are the best for back pain when back sleeping, but less focus has gone toward figuring out the best type for side sleepers. With that said, a look at the body mechanics can give some clues.
Because stiff surfaces force the arm toward the chest more easily when lying on the side, a softer mattress may help by allowing the arm to sink further in, easing the pressure on the joint. Mattresses that are too firm could cause shoulder pain for the opposite reason.
If you’re a back sleeper, soft surfaces like memory foam mattresses could cause neck pain due as they allow the heavier body to sink in further than the head, but they may be just right for side sleepers. Soft mattress toppers for shoulder pain could also be another solution if you don’t want to overhaul your sleep setup.
2. Get The Right Head Pillow
Sing it: “The shoulder bone’s connected to the… neck bone.”
While the children’s song could have some more accurate terminology, it has the basics right. Our bodies are intricately connected, and when one area gets out of whack another one may have to compensate.
This is often the case with head pillows, especially for side sleepers, since lying in that position can sometimes make neck and shoulder pain worse. If our pillow is too small, our heads droop down to the side, pulling the neck (and possibly shoulder) with it.
Because of that, you may want to consider some thicker and sturdier pillows. Here are some types of pillows for shoulder pain that could help:
- Thicker latex pillows
- Buckwheat pillows
- Bunched up down or feather pillows
- Possibly alternative fillings like microbeads if they’re packed tight enough
Changing your pillow can also help with frozen shoulder issues.
3. Try a Body Pillow
Another way to sleep on your side without hurting your shoulder is to… not sleep as much on your side. At the very least, you can form a compromise, and that’s where body pillows come in.
One study from 2021 found that hugging a body pillow in the side position allowed pressure to spread more evenly across the body. It also allowed for more deep sleep in that position.
You can also slide body pillows for shoulder pain behind your back and sleep in a half-side-half-back position, leaning on the pillow.
Our Cuddler could make a great shoulder pain pillow as it has the length and squishiness to mold to your needs. You can hug it, fold it, or even knot it up if you need more support.
Made from natural Melofoam™
Additional cover styles availableCuddle up
4. Strengthen and Repair the Shoulder
If you find yourself waking up with a lot of shoulder pain and changing your bedding and pillows doesn’t work, it may be time to consider the rehabilitation routine. Step one in that journey is talking to a professional.
Difficulties with the shoulder are often a result of a weak or injured rotator cuff, and specialists will often target that area after doing some tests.
Here are some general exercise categories that may help with shoulder pain with more details from the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons:
- Mobility work using objects like sticks or PVC pipe
- Basic shoulder stretches or warmups
- Dumbbells strengthening exercises
- Lever exercises with stretch bands
5. Use Heat and Ice
If you’re dealing with pain throughout the day you’re probably accumulating a lot of inflammation in the shoulder. You can manage this using heat or ice packs.
Ice packs are a better idea when dealing with a sudden injury, especially one that leads to some swelling. You can put ice on it regularly in the first few days after the injury and monitor for swelling after.
Heat packs are more for chronic tightness or pain from conditions like arthritis. They can help increase blood circulation which helps with recuperation and pain management.
6. Consider Pain Medications
The final solution that you may already be making use of to deal with your hurting shoulder is pain medications. These can help keep swelling down in the case of anti-inflammatory drugs, or they can manage the actual pain symptoms.
The problem with pain meds is that they’re more of a short-term solution. But if you just need to get a good sleep, they might be the best bet for the time being while you look at other options like rehabilitation.
You may also want to keep an eye on the time of medication you’re using as many pain meds contain caffeine.
How you sleep on your side without hurting your shoulder depends on what the root cause of the pain is in the first place. If the pain is a pure symptom of sleeping on your side you may want to change up your pillow or mattress.
You can also consider a body pillow like our Cuddler even if you’re dealing with an injury or medical condition. It may help keep the pressure off your shoulders and help you get the deeper sleep you need.