Can the way you sleep cause pain in your shoulders?

by Reuben Gobezie, MD

If shoulder pain is keeping you from sleeping at night, there is no doubt you are frustrated and want to find a way to stop it. When a patient tells me they have shoulder pain at night, often they will ask if it’s because they tend to sleep on their side.

Prolonged pressure on the shoulder from sleeping on your side can become painful especially if there is an underlying condition in the shoulder joint or upper arm. Pain at night is not normal and certainly a red flag that something needs to be addressed.

For side sleepers, this is commonly bursitis. Bursitis is an inflammation of the bursa, which is a fluid-filled pad that provides a cushion to the bones of the joint. When injured, fluid in the bursa increases and this swelling can be painful.

Other conditions that could lead to shoulder pain at night include biceps tendonitis, rotator cuff injuries or overuse injuries from a specific activity or shoulder motion that you make repetitively. Racquet and ball throwing sports are some of the main culprits, but any repetitive shoulder motion can cause an overuse injury.

Biceps tendinitis is usually the result of long-term overuse and deterioration of the biceps tendon that connects muscles and bones in the shoulder joint. Tendons may also get less flexible as we age, and more prone to injury. Tendinopathy is often part of the aging process. Biceps tendinopathy can give sharp pains in the arm with certain motions like reaching behind you.

Rotator cuff injuries usually involve a tear in these tendons. The rotator cuff includes four muscles that come together as tendons and connect your humerus bone to the shoulder blade. The cuff provides shoulder stability and enables movement. Damage to any one of the four muscles could result in inflammation and swelling and general pain in shoulder.  Rotator cuff tears are a very common problem and may result from a fall or lifting something too heavy, too fast. But most tears occur as the tendons wear down over time.

Importance of stretching

One of the first and easiest things you can do to try to relieve the pain is to carefully stretch the shoulder before you go to bed. Stretching can increase the range of motion of the shoulder joint and lessen the pain. Some very simple motions can make a world of difference in increasing your flexibility:

  1. Shoulder shrug up and down
  2. Rolling the shoulders in a backwards motion
  3. Wall stretch stand close to a wall and walk your fingers up as high as you can and hold

Before you see the doctor

Some things you can try at home to reduce the pain and inflammation include:

  • Taking anti-inflammatory medications such as ibuprofen, naproxen or acetaminophen
  • Sleeping in a recliner
  • Applying ice or heat
  • Wearing a compression sleeve
  • Take a break from any activities that may have contributed to overuse of the shoulder

If the shoulder pain doesn’t go away or worsens, see an orthopedic specialist. It’s important to properly diagnose your condition to ensure you’re getting the best treatment. A specialist will evaluate your X-ray or MRI and determine a care plan.

Non-surgical treatments may include activity modifications, physical therapy and/or a cortisone shot to ease the pain.  If there is no improvement in your strength or the injury worsens over time, surgery may be the best option to restore function and alleviate pain.


We’re here to help

Dr. Gobezie would be happy to evaluate your shoulder condition or provide a second opinion. Call 844-SHOULDR (844-746-8537) to schedule an appointment.

The Cleveland Shoulder Institute treats patients with all types of shoulder and elbow disorders resulting from traumatic injuries, arthritis, instabilities, rotator cuff and sports-related injuries. Led by internationally recognized Orthopedic Surgeon Reuben Gobezie, MD, the institute provides both surgical and non-operative treatments.

Dr. Gobezie is one of the country’s top specialists in advanced arthroscopic and open surgical techniques to restore damaged joints, ligaments and bones. He is also one of the most experienced and highest volume shoulder surgeons in the country. Several studies have shown that surgical volume, the number of surgeries a surgeon performs each year, is a strong predictor of patient outcome. The more surgeries that a doctor and his surgical team performs, the better the results for patients.

Dr. Gobezie is Founding Director of Cleveland Shoulder Institute and Regen Orthopedics.