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The Best Sleeping Positions for Shoulder Pain Relief

If you’re tossing and turning all night because of shoulder pain, you know how disruptive it can be to getting a good night’s sleep. Shoulder pain can have many causes – a strained muscle, tendinitis, bursitis, arthritis, or even a pinched nerve. While treatment depends on the underlying cause, one thing that can provide relief no matter what is using the right sleeping position. Finding a position that takes pressure off your shoulder while supporting your body alignment is key to both reducing pain and avoiding it in the future.

Here are the best sleeping positions if you’re dealing with shoulder pain:

Back Sleeping

For many people with shoulder issues, sleeping on the back is the top recommendation from doctors and physical therapists. Back sleeping helps keep the shoulders in a neutral and supported position, avoiding any contortion or twisting that could aggravate pain.

When back sleeping with shoulder pain, the key is to maintain good posture. Lie flat with your head in alignment with your spine. Avoid tilting or turning your head to one side. You can place a small, thin pillow under your knees to prevent lower back discomfort. If needed, use a pillow under your arms or elbows to cradle the shoulders. This takes pressure off the shoulder joints while keeping your body stable.

The downside to this position is that many people find it harder to sleep on their backs or they have apnea that limits back sleeping. If you can’t sleep in this position through the night, try starting out on your back when first getting into bed. After a short time, you can shift to your side as long as you maintain shoulder comfort.

Sleeping on Your Unaffected Side

For some shoulder pain sufferers, sleeping on the side without pain is an excellent way to get comfortable rest. Lying on the pain-free side keeps your sore shoulder from bearing weight or getting compressed. Support the head with a firm pillow to keep it aligned with the neck and spine. Bend your knees slightly and put a pillow between them. If needed, place a pillow under your arm or use a body pillow for support.

The key with this position is avoiding rolling onto your tender shoulder during the night. This may require taping or bracing the shoulder to limit movement. If you change positions frequently when sleeping, side sleeping may not work well. But for those who mostly stay put, it can provide needed rest.

Inclined Sleeping

Elevating the upper body can take pressure off painful shoulders at night. Raise the head of your bed 30-45 degrees or use pillows to create an incline. Support your head and neck fully with the pillows. You can use rolled towels or small pillows under your arms as needed for support and alignment.

The benefit of inclined sleeping is it uses gravity to reduce the weight and stress on the shoulder joints, especially if you elevate the affected side slightly. This position also makes it easier to maintain back sleeping. The downside is slippage – as you sleep through the night, you may slide down and lose the benefits of incline. Try using a towel rolled up under your mid-back to hold your position.

Recliner Sleeping

For those with limited mobility and severe shoulder pain, trying to sleep in a bed may be difficult. Adjustable recliners allow you to sleep semi-upright with the upper body inclined. This takes all pressure off the shoulders and provides comfortable support. Place pillows for stability and alignment.

The reclined position makes it easier to get in and out of the chair if your shoulder pain limits mobility. You can also elevate your legs. The drawback is that sleeping in a recliner long-term isn’t ideal for back support and alignment. Try to transition back to bed as shoulder pain improves.

Avoid Sleeping on Your Stomach

While some stomach sleepers swear by this position, it’s one of the worst if you have shoulder troubles. Sleeping face down twists the neck, compresses joints, and stresses muscles. The shoulders bear the weight of the upper body rather than relaxing. For those predisposed to shoulder problems, this position puts excessive strain on the area all night.

If you currently sleep on your stomach, try to transition to your back or side before shoulder pain develops. Use pillows and supportive cushioning to make non-stomach sleeping more comfortable. Once you have shoulder pain, stomach sleeping will exacerbate inflammation and delay healing.

Use Pillows for Comfort and Alignment

No matter what position you sleep in, supportive pillows are key to reducing shoulder pain. Look for pillows that keep the head, neck, and spine aligned while providing cushioning comfort.

Side sleepers do best with a lofted pillow between 4 and 6 inches thick. Back sleepers may prefer a slightly thinner, flatter pillow. Stomach sleepers need the thinnest pillows.

Choose pillows filled with memory foam, shredded foam, polyester, or cotton rather than solid foam or feathers. These provide both support and adaptability for sore shoulders. You can also purchase specially contoured pillows for shoulder pain and orthopedic issues. Wedge pillows and other shapes help sustain ideal positioning.

Consider Shoulder Braces or Supports

To prevent painful shoulder positions while you sleep, try using a brace or support device. These limit shoulder motion, especially on the affected side. Immobilizing the shoulder joint lets the muscles relax and reduces grinding, popping, and twisting. Braces also encourage side or back sleeping positions rather than stomach sleeping.

Many types of shoulder supports are available, from simple slings to more rigid braces. Some people find taping or strapping the shoulder before bed helps cue their body to avoid that side. Don’t wear any brace or sling too tightly – it should allow some movement but prevent rolling. Talk to your doctor or physical therapist about options.

Improve Mattress and Pillow Comfort

An uncomfortable or unsupportive mattress can aggravate shoulder pain, especially if you have arthritis or bursitis. Old mattresses that sag can cause poor alignment and uneven pressure on joints.

Upgrading to a medium firm mattress designed to contour and support the shoulders can help. Memory foam mattresses evenly distribute body weight and reduce pressure points. If your budget is limited, consider a memory foam topper to improve your existing mattress.

Your pillow also plays a key role in keeping your head and neck aligned with your shoulders. Replace lumpy, flat pillows. Opt for adjustable, supportive types like memory foam. Proper cushioning reduces tension on the neck, shoulders, and upper back.

Practice Relaxation Techniques

Difficulty falling or staying asleep due to shoulder discomfort can exacerbate the problem. Getting quality, restful sleep allows your body to relax and heal. If pain or anxiety about your shoulder is causing insomnia, try calming techniques before bed. Deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, imagery, and mindfulness meditation can reduce stress and tension.

Listening to soothing music or nature sounds while falling asleep also encourages relaxation. Don’t stimulate your mind with electronics before bed. Shut off devices at least an hour before sleep. Establish a regular sleep routine to prepare your body and mind for quality rest.

See Your Doctor for Additional Treatment

While improving sleep position, mattress, and pillows may help shoulder pain, it’s also important to treat the underlying condition. See your physician for an examination and diagnosis. Treatment options may include:

  • Pain relievers or anti-inflammatory medications
  • Steroid injections
  • Physical therapy
  • Chiropractic care
  • Surgery if necessary

Your doctor can help develop a treatment plan. Many shoulder problems respond well to conservative treatment. Getting proper medical care along with optimizing your sleep setup will help you wake up with less shoulder pain.

The right sleeping positions and supporting bedding can make a huge difference in shoulder discomfort. Listen to your body and adjust as needed for comfort. Protecting your shoulders at night will improve healing and functionality, helping you feel better. With restful sleep, you can confront each day ready to take on activities pain-free.