How to Sleep with Rotator Cuff Pain

Are you feeling pain in your shoulder after a day of moving, playing sports, or a particularly uncomfortable night of sleep? The problem could be your rotator cuff, which is the collective name for a group of four muscles, called SITS – the supraspinatus, infraspinatus, teres minor, and subscapularis. These muscles (along with their same-named tendons) work together to keep your arm in the shoulder socket, stabilize the shoulder joint, and help you do actions such as raising or rotating your arm. (Source)

Pain in the rotator cuff is often a result of injuries or repetitive motions, causing inflammation or a tear in the muscle or tendon. While it is a common condition for some athletic sports, anyone can be at risk when doing activities that require regular use of the SITS muscles and tendons. Other rotator cuff pain could be caused by:

  • Shoulder impingement – The rubbing or friction of soft tissue on other tissues or bone.
  • Frozen shoulder – Movement is impaired due to the thickening of tissues within the joint.
  • Bursitis – Inflammation of the lubricating fluid-filled sac that surrounds the shoulder joint for protection.
  • Osteoarthritis – Cartilage and bone in the shoulder joint have begun to weaken or deteriorate.

The good news is that not all rotator cuff pain or injuries require surgery. In fact, your first method of treatment should be rest – which asks the question, how do you sleep with rotator cuff pain? After all, you don’t want to cause more pain accidentally. Let’s look at some things that you can do to keep an eye on your pain without losing sleep over it.

Change Sleeping Positions

For some people, problems within the rotator cuff can be affected and made worse by the way that they sleep. Whether it’s from an injury or you’re just starting to notice a dull ache in your shoulder, you should begin with switching the way that you sleep.

Sleep Upright or In A Recliner

After an abrupt tear or injury, you should plan to sleep in an upright position for a few days. This will help you keep pressure off of the joint. If you don’t have a recliner, try stacking several pillows under your head and chest, or use a wedge pillow. I personally recommend using an Xtreme Comforts Wedge Pillow (link to Amazon) to help achieve the best angle for comfortably sleeping with rotator cuff pain.

Sleep On the Opposite Side

If you are usually a side sleeper, you should try to sleep on the opposite shoulder. If the pain is significant, sleeping on it will not only feel worse, but it can make the injury worse as well. Place a few pillows behind you for support and to prevent you from rolling in your sleep. Alternatively, I highly recommend is using two BioPEDIC Body Pillows (link to Amazon) on either side of you to help keep you positioned on your non-affected side!

Sleep Flat On Your Back with A Pillow

Depending on the location of the injury, sleeping on your back can help relieve some of the pain. If the pain is in the front of your shoulder, try sleeping on your back and placing a pillow or thin cushion under the affected side. Elevating the arm will help to take the pressure off of the shoulder and will stop you from rolling onto it.

However, keep in mind that if the pain is in the back of your shoulder, back sleeping may not be comfortable or ideal as the weight could worsen the pain. If you are looking for a thin pillow, I’ve had the best luck with an Ultra Slim Gel Memory Foam Pillow (link to Amazon). I’ve had it for over a year and I absolutely love itextremely comfortable!

Avoid Sleeping On the Affected Side or Your Stomach

Unless instructed by your physical therapist or doctor, sleeping on the affected side may aggravate your injury. This can depend on the type and location of your pain, but it’s best to avoid putting extra pressure and weight on the shoulder joint until you can visit your doctor.

Stomach sleeping should also be avoided because it adds stress to the injury, especially if the pain is in the front of the shoulder.

Avoid Sleeping with Your Arms Overhead

Sleeping in this position can add more pressure and pain to the shoulder joint. You can also delay your healing and do damage to the nerves in the shoulders.

Pre-Bed Precautions

What you do before you get into bed is often almost as important as how you sleep. By spending just 30 minutes with a pre-sleep routine, you will be able to minimize the pain and hopefully prevent it from getting worse.

Take Medication

Over the counter anti-inflammatories are useful for many people who suffer from rotator cuff pain. Because most discomfort stems from inflammation in the tendons, taking medication, such as aspirin, can reduce the swelling while you are trying to sleep.

Apply Ice

A common solution for inflammation is the application of ice to the area. Before bed, use a cold compress or ice pack for 15-20 minutes to help relieve the pain and minimize the swelling. During my last bout of rotator cuff pain, I picked up an awesome compression hot/cold pack. It’s a game-changer for helping to reduce my swelling and pain before bed. Here is the best price I could find it for on AmazonNatraCure Hot/Cold & Compression Shoulder Support.

Use Heat

Many people find that applying heat to the area helps to relax the muscles and ease the tension. If an injury or tear causes the pain, you will want to wait at least 48 hours before using a heat treatment. A warm bath or heat pack before bed can help settle the shoulder before you climb into bed.

Wear An Arm Sling

If you’re worried about moving in your sleep, or if shifting throughout the night causes you to wake in discomfort, an arm sling might be useful for you. Rather than allowing your arm to move around freely, a sling will help stabilize it and keep it in place.

The sling will also help serve as a reminder for you to not perform actions that will make your injury worse.

Use Sports Tape

Kinesiology Therapy tape, or KT tape, is a great option to help with rotator cuff pain. By helping to minimize swelling, reduce pain, and provide stability in the muscles and shoulder joint, KT tape can promote healing of the injury, even while you sleep.

When applied correctly, the tape can help to create space within the joint, minimizing friction. (Source)

Do Some Light Stretching

Stretching can be two-fold because it helps relieve stiffness or sore muscles, but it also can be painful to begin. You want to ensure that you are stretching each day to prevent the muscles from becoming too tense from your efforts to not move it at all.

Stretching will also help to build up the strength and flexibility in your muscles, helping to prevent future injury. Start with these:

  • Shoulder rolls – Starting in a neutral position, bring your shoulders up to your ears and slowly make circular motions, rolling them forward, down, backward, then back up to your ears. Repeat this for 20 seconds, then switch and move them in the opposite direction.
  • Cactus arms – With your back to a wall, bring your arms up like a cactus, with your elbows out to each side and bent at a 90-degree angle, palms flat and facing forward. Slowly rotate one arm downward, bringing the palm to face the wall while keeping the elbow bent. Now that the arms are opposite of each other continue to switch them by bringing one down as the other rotates upward, and repeat for 30 seconds.
  • Cross-body and open shoulder stretch – Bring your straightened arm across your chest and use the opposite arm to hold it in place for 10-15 seconds. Then place your palm flat against the wall with your arm straight, as if you are trying to push the wall away. Begin to slowly turn your body away from the wall while keeping your arm in place to open your chest and the front of your shoulder.

Because all injuries and bodies are different, never push yours past the level of comfort. If a stretch causes extreme pain, listen to your body; don’t just push through it. Consult with your doctor or your physical therapist for personalized treatment options.

Rotator Cuff Conclusion

If conditions don’t improve after several weeks, you should speak with a healthcare professional as soon as possible. More specialized treatment may be necessary, such as physical therapy or surgery.

Rotator cuff pain and injuries are relatively common, but losing sleep doesn’t have to be. By following the sleep tips above, you can be on your way to a comfortable night of sleep, making your shoulder pain a thing of the past.

Tiara Croft

Tiara is an avid sleeper and fully dedicated to her work and research. Most often this includes, but is not limited to, napping, testing how many hours in one night that she can sleep, trying new sleep methods and constantly changing sleep positions. Tiara's main focuses are on dreams and how we can achieve the best natural sleep possible. As a sufferer of insomnia and other sleep-related disturbances, Tiara loves to dig deep into the subconscious to ask all the questions that can help us better understand what happens when we sleep.

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