Side Sleeper Shoulder Pain: How To Prevent It

side sleeper shoulder pain

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 spinal 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.

Sleeping Postures

The main goal of a correct sleeping posture is to ensure the spine is well balanced and supported in order to avoid unnecessary pain or discomfort after you wake up or while sleeping.

There is no perfect sleeping posture but there are modifications that can be made to ensure that the entire spine is well balanced and supported.

There are different forms of sleeping postures but the major ones are:

1. Supine Lying Or Sleeping On Your Back

2. Prone Lying Or Sleeping On Your Chest

3. Side Sleeping

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.

Why The Shoulder Joint May Hurt When Side-Sleeping

We need to understand why the shoulder joint may be affected in side-lying by first knowing what the shoulder joint is all about.

The shoulder is a ball and socket joint in the upper limb. It connects the upper limb to the body. The shoulder is a very mobile and flexible joint and also an unstable joint.

Three bones make up the shoulder joint.

  • The clavicle or collarbone
  • The scapula or shoulder blade
  • The humerus or the upper arm bone

The head of the humerus articulates with the glenoid fossa of the scapula forming the glenohumeral joint, which is the alternative name for the shoulder joint. It moves in different directions making it one of the mobile joints in the human body. The different movements at the shoulder are:

  • Flexion
  • Extension
  • Abduction
  • Adduction
  • Internal rotation
  • External rotation
  • Circumduction

Muscles stabilize the shoulder joint. Some of these muscles have parts in the upper trunk which is why if anything happens to them, they can cause shoulder pain because of the connection. These muscles, sometimes known as the rotator cuff muscles, are:

  • Supraspinatus
  • Infraspinatus
  • Teres Minor
  • Subscapularis
  • Biceps brachii

The supraspinatus, infraspinatus and teres minor abduct and externally rotate the shoulder while the subscapularis internally rotates the shoulder.

Ligaments join the bones in the shoulder joint together. These ligaments are:

  • Glenohumeral ligament joins the humerus to the glenoid fossa. It prevents the shoulder joint from dislocating towards the front of the joint.
  • Coracohumeral ligament joins the base of the coracoid process to the greater tubercle of the humerus.
  • Transverse humeral ligament joins the two tubercles of the humerus.
  • Coracoacromial ligament
  • Capsular ligament

How Is Sleep-Related 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

Adekanmi Lipede

Adekanmi Lipede is a licensed physiotherapist with a Master's degree in physical activity and public health. She loves to exercise and read.