What Causes Shoulder Pain When Sleeping? 

Shoulder pain while sleepingThe way we sleep can affect our wellbeing, in more ways than one. Shoulder pain when sleeping may be remedied through different sleeping aids and position changes but is usually a sign of a deeper problem. Let us explore some ways your sleep habits might be worsening your shoulder pain.  

While the knee is the most complex joint in the human body, the shoulder is the most mobile – which is one of the reasons it may be more injury-prone than other joints. Unlike the knee and elbow, which are hinge joints, the shoulder joint is a ball-and socket joint, much like the hip, but with a greater range of motion.  

That being said, shoulder injuries rarely occur while you’re sleeping. If you woke up with significant shoulder pain that wasn’t there the day before, chances are that your overnight tossing and turning could have exacerbated an existing shoulder injury, or simply pushed your shoulder past its limits for the day. Sleeping on your side can place a lot of stress on the shoulder joint, and that stress can be worsened by certain types of mattresses, the use or lack of certain pillows, as well as your medical history.  

Common Causes of Shoulder Pain When Sleeping  

The first and most obvious contributing factor to your shoulder pain when sleeping is how you sleep. If you tend to be a side sleeper, then it is likely that you are experiencing shoulder pain on the same side that you sleep on. Back sleepers may still experience some shoulder pain depending on the hardness or softness of the mattress, although this risk is increased even further for sleeping on your stomach – this can be an uncomfortable position for the body in the long-term, especially on the neck.  

Shoulder Injuries 

Rotator cuffs are another common cause of sleep-related shoulder pain. The rotator cuff is a set of tendons that surround the upper arm bone, keeping it secure in the socket joint of the shoulder blade. These tendons may be overstretched or damaged due to trauma or overuse, such as a sports-related injury or an inflammation from excess physical fatigue. A rotator cuff injury may not restrict your shoulder mobility but can result in significant pain while trying to move your arm up.  

In more extreme cases, your shoulder pain may be the result of a condition called frozen shoulder. Doctors aren’t sure how or why frozen shoulder occurs, but it is characterized by the sudden and severe onset of unilateral (one-sided) shoulder pain, loss in shoulder mobility, and neck pain. Recovery for frozen shoulder can take years in some cases.  

Not all forms of shoulder pain with limited mobility immediately imply a frozen shoulder, however. If the tissues within your shoulder are inflamed – especially certain tendons – then your shoulder’s mobility may be physically blocked by the swollen tissue. This is called a shoulder impingement.  

Another common tendon injury, especially in athletes or active individuals, is a SLAP tear. This is an injury to the cartilage inside the socket of the shoulder joint, also known as the superior labrum. If incomplete, a SLAP tear can heal itself – in other cases, it may become a chronic or recurring point of pain. SLAP tears are often the result of repetitive motions in sports (such as a baseball or softball throw, overhead weightlifting, or swimming) without sufficient recovery.  

Inflammation and Arthritis 

Aside from shoulder injuries and tendonitis, certain conditions may affect the tendons and joints of the body in general, including the shoulder. Arthritis, for example, may exacerbate an old shoulder injury or cause new shoulder pain. Arthritis encompasses over a hundred different inflammatory conditions, some related to autoimmune problems, while others are the result of a viral infection.  

Finding the right cause for your shoulder pain through symptoms and physical tests alone can be difficult. Once a doctor establishes your shoulder’s current range of motion and assesses your pain levels, they may need to rely on imaging tests to figure out exactly which element in your shoulder has been damaged.  

When to Consult Your Doctor 

If your pain persists after the first week, becomes more severe, or if you feel you cannot use your arm effectively at home or at work, see a doctor immediately. Certain over-the-counter medications can help give you back use of your arm, while a medical professional’s opinion can help identify the potential cause of your pain, and the best treatment approach.  

Clients who approach us about their shoulder pain often share some of the same concerns. We’ve heard clients ask about the potential complications if shoulder pain while sleeping is left untreated. If the pain begins to go away on its own, then leaving the shoulder untreated may have prolonged the pain somewhat but will not impede a long-term recovery. Most cases of inflammation, in particular, resolve themselves. But in the rare case that the injury or the inflammation is chronic, the condition may become more severe if ignored, to the extent that a surgical intervention becomes necessary.  

Other clients ask if there are specific sleeping positions that can alleviate shoulder pain. For the most part, this depends on what positions cause the least discomfort in your particular bed. A mattress change may help you reduce pain, but so might trying to get used to sleeping on your back or on the other shoulder.  

There is no specific timeline for how long it takes a shoulder injury to resolve itself. In some cases, minor injuries such as an overstretched tendon can take a few weeks to be entirely healed. Other cases last years, especially if the pain is chronic and recurring.  

The right exercise plan can help you improve your shoulder’s mobility, stability, and strength. Patients with shoulder injuries in the past are especially likely to profit from a stronger shoulder – but the wrong program can backfire, too. Ease back into exercise or work exclusively with an experienced physical therapist at your side. If you have more questions about shoulder pain when sleeping, be sure to contact us at Pain Management and Injury Relief, and learn more about our pain management and treatment services.  

Conclusion: The shoulder joint connects the clavicle to the upper arm bone, the shoulder blade, and a small bony protrusion on the shoulder blade called the acromion. This mobility allows us to depress and retract our shoulders, raise, and lower them, and rotate our arms in nearly complete freedom, at the cost of stability. Each of the ligaments that interconnect the bony elements of the shoulder can be torn, inflamed, or damaged by overuse or trauma, resulting in loss of strength, mobility, flexibility, and some pain.  

That pain can become worse when we try to rest at night. The way you sleep – particularly how you position yourself, and how much you move at night – may interfere with your shoulder’s recovery, or even worsen any existing pain. If you or a loved one are struggling with severe shoulder pain at night, managing that pain should be a priority. Good sleep is crucial for joint health and recovery. We at PMIR can help identify the right pain management plan for your shoulder pain.  


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About Pain Management & Injury Relief

Pain Management and Injury Relief is a leading patient-centered pain clinic in Southern California. Our goal is to help you achieve long-lasting pain relief. By utilizing the latest medical technologies and equipment paired with innovative procedures and treatments, our team can help you improve your quality of life.

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