How to Fix Shoulder Pain From Sleeping on Your Side

Last Updated on July 13, 2024

by Marc Werner, Founder - GhostBed

Sleep is supposed to make you feel vibrant and refreshed, so it's frustrating to wake up with shoulder pain. Fortunately, you're not doomed to a lifetime of discomfort.

If you have shoulder pain from sleeping on your side, there are solutions. (And they don't always include sleeping on your back!)

Keep reading to learn what's causing your discomfort and how to get better sleep. We'll also help you find the best mattress and pillow for your sleeping style.

Sleep with a pillow in front of your chest to support your shoulder.

Why Do My Shoulders Hurt When I Sleep on My Side?

There are many reasons you may feel pain when you sleep on your side. According to WebMD, you might have a pre‐existing condition such as...

  • Osteoarthritis. A condition in which the cartilage in your shoulder wears down, leading to stiffness, pain and limited mobility.
  • An injured rotator cuff. Your rotator cuff is composed of tendons and muscles surrounding your shoulder joint. When it's injured, it can cause an aching sensation in your shoulder.
  • Bursitis. A condition in which the fluid‐filled sacs surrounding your shoulder bones, tendons and muscles become inflamed.

Any pre‐existing shoulder issue is likely to be made worse by sleeping on your side.

If you suspect you may have osteoarthritis, bursitis or another condition, give your doctor a call.

Can You Damage Your Shoulder by Sleeping on It?

Sometimes, the primary cause of your shoulder pain is sleeping on your side. (Especially if you're sleeping on the wrong mattress!)

Side sleeping can strain your rotator cuff and put too much weight on your joints, leading to inflammation, tearing and discomfort.

Thankfully, there are ways to alleviate the pain, even if you can't kick your side‐sleeping habit.

Sleep with a pillow in front of your chest to support your shoulder.

How to Sleep on Your Side Without Hurting Your Shoulder

Let's start with the obvious. If you only have pain in one shoulder, don't sleep on that side.

Instead, sleep with your injured shoulder facing the ceiling and a pillow under the armpit on your injured side. This will help to relieve pressure on your rotator cuff.

If—despite your best efforts—you find yourself sleeping on your injured shoulder, you can still find some relief.

Start by stacking one or two pillows beneath your head. Then lie on your side and place another pillow in front of your chest.

This setup will provide support for your head, neck and top arm while you doze, reducing pressure on the injured shoulder.

If you can, you might also try adding a pillow behind your back. Roll your body toward it to further reduce shoulder pressure.

Choosing the Right Pillow

If you plan to use pillows to support your shoulders while you sleep, it's important to choose the right ones. Our resident sleep expert, Greg, recommends choosing a high‐profile pillow, AKA a pillow with a lot of height.

Sleep Experts Weigh In
I find most customers who sleep on their sides prefer a dense pillow over a soft pillow. A more substantial pillow helps side‐sleepers keep their bodies in alignment, especially when sleeping on a softer mattress.
- Greg, Sleep Expert

Denser pillows like the Shredded or Memory Foam models from GhostBed fill in the empty space between your body and the bed, providing the most support.

According to Greg, these pillows also pair best with softer mattresses, which—spoiler alert—are key to comfortable side sleeping. (More on that soon.)

Changing Your Sleep Position

If you're up for the challenge, you can try changing your sleep position entirely. Some folks find this doable, while others simply can't get in the habit of a new posture.

If you do want to try a new sleep position, lying on your back is optimal for reducing shoulder pain. If you'd like to try to switch to your back, we have a guide on how to do it.

When lying on your back, don't forget to place a pillow on your torso and rest your arms on it. This will further reduce the strain on your shoulders.

Short‐Term Solutions For Shoulder Pain

Even if you've found a more supportive sleep position, you may still have some lingering shoulder pain.

The following are a few short‐term solutions that can reduce discomfort. Remember to speak with your doctor before trying any of them.

  • Anti‐inflammatory supplements or medications. Because the root cause of most pain is inflammation, anti‐inflammatories can help with discomfort. Some folks opt for medications like ibuprofen, while others find success supplementing with turmeric, fish oil and other anti‐inflammatory foods.
  • Alternating between hot and cold. Alternating between heating pads and ice packs can reduce pain. Always start with ice to reduce swelling before applying heat.

Exercises and Stretches for Side Sleepers

In some cases, movement is medicine. Stretching your shoulders and the rest of your body can be an excellent way to release accumulated tension and alleviate pain.

A qualified physical therapist can provide a stretching routine tailored to your needs, so always consult with your doctor first.

If appropriate, here are a few moves you can try at home.

1.Knee-to-chest-stretch. This stretch eases lower back tension. To do it, lie on your back and bring one knee to your chest. Hold for 30 seconds, then switch to the other knee.

2.Side-lying quad stretch. This stretch relieves hip and quad tightness and promotes better hip alignment. To do it, lie on your side. Bend your top knee and gently pull it toward your glutes for 30 seconds. Then switch to the other knee.

3.Neck rolls. These are excellent for alleviating neck stiffness and discomfort. Slowly rotate your head in circular motions, both clockwise and counterclockwise for 30 seconds.

4.Pectoral stretch. This stretch opens your chest and shoulders. To do it, stand with your arms extended behind you. Then interlock your fingers and gently lift your arms, squeezing your shoulder blades. Hold for 30 seconds.

5.Child's pose. This one provides a deep stretch for the spine and hips. To do it, kneel on the floor. Then sit back on your heels and extend your arms forward while lowering your chest to the ground. Hold for 30 seconds.

Doing these in the morning after lying on your side can help reduce not only shoulder pain, but full-body pain from sleeping in the same position every night.

Woman sleeping on side on GhostBed Luxe Mattress

A Supportive Mattress for Side‐Sleepers

For many side‐sleepers, stretching and using pillows strategically can only do so much to alleviate shoulder pain. In most cases, a long‐term solution—like purchasing a new mattress—is needed.

While many factors (like your weight, body type, and health conditions) can affect the type of mattress you prefer, most side sleepers generally feel best on a softer mattress.

Softer mattresses cushion and contour at pressure points (like your shoulder) instead of pressing against them the way a firmer mattress might. When pressure on your shoulder is relieved, pain is likely to dissipate or disappear.

At GhostBed, we've designed our Luxe and 3D Matrix® mattresses to be soft and supportive for folks who sleep on their sides. Many customers report that they wake up pain free just days or weeks after sleeping on these beds.

If you're ready to invest in a mattress to reduce your shoulder pain, we can help you find the right one. Connect with one of our sleep experts now to get started. We're standing by to help you get your most restorative and pain‐free sleep.

Marc Werner - Founder, GhostBed

Marc Werner

Founder - GhostBed

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Marc has spent the last two decades designing & manufacturing mattresses and other sleep products, drawing on a lifetime of experience working with the material sciences. With several patents to his name, he works closely with the GhostBed team to create products with the perfect balance of comfort & support. Learn More

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