Side Sleeper Shoulder Pain: How To Sleep On Your Side

We all have different sleeping postures that we love. We sleep on our backs, on our chests, and on our sides.

However, poor sleeping postures can lead to pain which can be at the neck, upper back, middle back or lower back or pin-like sensations in the shoulder joints radiating down the affected arm or sometimes our legs.

Side Sleeping And Shoulder Pain

side sleeping shoulder pain

When you lie on your left side, we tend to place a lot of pressure on our left shoulder and left hip and also a misalignment of the entire spine. Your body automatically twists while in this position and bears a lot of weight on the shoulder and hip, which can lead to shoulder pain.

How To Sleep On Your Side And Avoid Shoulder Pain

The shoulder connects the arm to the trunk. if there is any alteration in the body while side sleeping, the shoulder ends up bearing the weight and causing pain.

Due to this connection, an imbalance or a misalignment of the spine while sleeping indirectly affects the shoulder joint and since the shoulder joint is quite unstable, it is not stable and strong enough to bear the whole body weight which may eventually lead to shoulder pain.

To avoid pain at the shoulder joint while sleeping on your side, you need to position yourself correctly by ensuring you have the following:

1. Use A Supportive Mattress

We have different types of mattresses. We have some that are really soft, some that are hard, some like a waterbed to mention a few.

Sleeping on a really soft mattress will curse the curves of your body to sink in thereby causing the spine to not be aligned and in the process cause pain around the spine.

If the cervical spine or neck bone is not well supported, we unconsciously bear weight on the shoulder we are sleeping on because there is no even distribution of the body weight while sleeping.

How do you prevent this? Change to a comfortable mattress or opt for an orthopedic mattress or medium firm mattress. Getting a supportive mattress aligns the spine and aids even weight distribution across the body and in the process prevents shoulder pain.

2. Use The Right Pillows

Pillows can provide support and comfort to the body while sleeping. Just in case you cannot change your mattress, having a lot of pillows go a long way in supporting your body while you sleep.

While sleeping on your side,

  • A thick or firm pillow should support the head and neck. This will reduce the weight of the body on the shoulder while in side lying.
  • Bend your knees and put a firm pillow between your knees to keep the spine in a neutral position. Sleeping without a pillow between the knees may cause the upper leg to come closer to the bed which in turn twists the waist and unconsciously lead to weight bearing on the shoulder joint causing pain.

How Is Side-Sleeper Shoulder Pain Treated?

Now that we have an idea of how the shoulder works and some of the major anatomical structures found around it, injury or stress to the surrounding structures at the shoulder joint cause pain. Sleeping on the right shoulder, for example, may cause compression of the ligaments or a strain on the muscles leading to pain.

Here are a few ways of relieving the pain and how to get your shoulder back to how it was before the pain.

1. Pain Killers

Medications like diclofenac and ibuprofen can help relieve pain and reduce any form of inflammation at the shoulder joint. (Always discuss with your doctor or pharmacist before taking medications).

2. Rest It

Avoid repetitive movements at the affected shoulder joint. Rest is needed so that the affected anatomical structure at the shoulder joint can heal well and enable you to return to your normal daily activities. Move your shoulder gently within the limit of your pain.

3. Ice it

ice for pain

When you wake up with shoulder pain, there will be a tendency for you to massage immediately. Well, DON’T!!! Make an ice pack by crushing ice in a damp towel and place on your shoulder joint for 15 minutes. Ice will make the shoulder joint numb and reduce the swelling. Do not put naked ice on your skin.

4. Exercise it

Exercise your shoulder when the pain at the shoulder joint is reduced and manageable. Start with gentle exercises but do not overdo as it may cause more harm than good. Some of these exercises that can be done are:

Isometric exercises

  • Place a pillow under your armpit.
  • Hold the pillow with your forearm towards your trunk
  • Count 5 seconds and release
  • This strengthens the muscles surrounding the shoulder joint

Pendulum exercises

  • While standing, bend slowly at the waist forward
  • Relax your neck and let your affected arm hang
  • Make 10 – 20 circles with the affected arm

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Adekanmi Lipede, M.Sc, MPH

Adekanmi Lipede is a licensed physiotherapist with a Master's degree in physical activity and public health from Loughborough University. She joined 25 Doctors in 2018 and is passionate about educating people about the best steps to take when trying to be physically fit or when recovering from a mobility-related condition. For fun, she loves to exercise and read.
Adekanmi Lipede, M.Sc, MPH