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Why Does My Shoulder Hurt When I Sleep?

When you wake up in the morning after a long night’s sleep, the last thing you want is to feel pain or numbness in your shoulder.

You’re likely wondering if you’re somehow causing damage to your shoulder while sleeping. We spend about eight hours a night in bed, so it shouldn’t be surprising that sleep posture can contribute to back, neck and shoulder pain.

However, it’s unlikely that your sleep position is actually causing an injury. Instead, it’s more likely to be aggravating a condition you may not even know you have.

When you spend most – if not all – of the night in the same position, your body weight puts considerable strain and stress on the more sensitive parts of your body. There are several conditions that are particularly vulnerable to this aggravation.

Torn Rotator Cuff

A torn rotator cuff is one of the most common causes of pain and disability in older adults. Some 2 million people seek help for these injuries each year, but there are many who don’t even realize they have a tear until symptoms become more noticeable.

Your rotator cuff is a group of four muscles and tendons responsible for moving your arm. These muscles keep your arm bone (humerus) attached to your shoulder blade (scapula). The muscles help you lift and rotate your arm, making them important for common daily activities like getting dressed, combing your hair, carrying your children, and sports like golf, tennis and swimming.

When you sleep on the side with the tear, it can irritate the injury, potentially bringing it to your attention. Symptoms include:

  • Shoulder pain: This is usually a dull ache that gets worse at night or when you raise and lower your arm.
  • Difficulty sleeping: As the pain gets worse, it can become difficult to get a good night’s rest.
  • Shoulder weakness: Your shoulder loses strength, making even simple tasks – reaching for a glass on an upper shelf, for example – a challenge.
  • Discomfort when moving your arm: You may feel a popping or crackling (crepitus) when you move your arm.

Bursitis

Bursitis is a catch-all term for any inflammation within the shoulder that may not be attributed to structural injury. Bursae are small, jelly-like sacs located between bones and soft tissue throughout your body. They provide cushioning that reduces friction as your bones move.

The bursae in your shoulder can become irritated and inflamed, often as a result of overuse or repetitive shoulder motions. When you sleep on that shoulder, you might place more pressure on the bursae found there. Switching sides may not help either, since the affected arm may rest in a way that puts stress on your shoulder joint. There are also cases where sleeping on the same side could cause the inflammation that leads to bursitis. Symptoms include:

  • pain and stiffness along the neck and upper back
  • Pain worse with movement
  • Nagging soreness about the shoulder

Osteoarthritis

Osteoarthritis is the gradual degradation of the cartilage that cushions your bones where they come together to form a joint. It can be the result of an injury or disease but is generally attributed to the wear-and-tear that comes with age and repetitive activity.

When it occurs in your shoulder, it attacks the cartilage that lines the ball and socket of your shoulder joint. Symptoms include:

  • Limited range of motion
  • Pain that gets worse with movement
  • Clicking or grinding sound from the shoulder

Strategies To Help

Initially, you might consider tinkering with your sleep position to find a position that keeps pressure off that shoulder. Try sleeping on the other side or on your back. Sleeping on your back can keep your spine in a neutral position, without putting stress on your shoulders. You can also experiment with pillows (adding or subtracting them) to help find a lower-tension position.

If you are still experiencing pain in the morning, add in some range-of-motion exercises, over-the-counter anti-inflammatory medications, and cold compresses.

If your symptoms don’t improve – or if they get worse – after a few weeks, talk with your doctor to figure out what’s happening with your shoulder.

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