How to Avoid Waking Up with Shoulder Pain

How to Avoid Waking Up with Shoulder Pain

You have no history of shoulder pain, and you haven’t recently injured yourself, yet you wake up with pain in your shoulder that wrecks your morning routine and leaves you wondering — why?

What could have happened during the night to create such agony. How can you get rid of it, and how can you ensure it never happens again?

We have answers to these questions and more. 

At Tuscaloosa Orthopedic & Joint Institute in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, Dr. Bryan King and Dr. Jeffrey Cuomo diagnose and treat shoulder pain that stems from traumatic injuries, chronic diseases, and even overnight mysteries. Here, they explain the most common causes of morning shoulder pain and how to prevent it.

Reasons your shoulder hurts in the morning

A previous injury or chronic condition like osteoarthritis can leave you with an achy shoulder any time of day or night. But in the absence of these problems, morning shoulder pain is most likely a result of sleeping in a bad position, and side sleepers are notorious for waking up with shoulder pain. 

If you sleep on your side, your body weight bears down on your shoulder and arm, compressing your rotator cuff tendons and the fluid-filled bursa sacs. This compression triggers inflammation, which is the primary cause of your pain when you wake up. 

An over-the-counter anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID) like ibuprofen and a couple of days should relieve the pain and the underlying inflammation within a day or two. But if the pain persists, come and see us.

Warning about arm pain and heart attacks

Don’t be too hasty to brush off your morning shoulder pain as a sleep-position issue. Pain in the left shoulder and arm are warning signs of a heart attack, and heart attack risk increases by about 40% in the morning hours. 

Morning heart attacks also stand to damage about 20% more of your heart tissue than those that occur later in the day. 

If you experience pain in your shoulder or arm along with chest tightness, shortness of breath, sweating, nausea, or lightheadedness, call 911.

How to avoid shoulder pain in the morning

If your shoulder pain comes from sleeping on your side, the best way to avoid the pain is to change your sleep position — which is easier said than done. Once you’re asleep, your body has a mind of its own and finds its favorite position regardless of your good intentions to make a change. 

However, to the best of your ability, try these tips.

Keep your arm down

One of the most common culprits behind morning-time shoulder pain is the overhead arm hook. 

If you sleep with your arm arched up near your headboard, you’re in a perfect position to generate shoulder pain. As your body and muscles relax, your upper arm bone and your shoulder joint relax, too, and they pinch your rotator cuff tendons and bursae.

Over time, your morning pain may last longer than a day or two because the constant compression eventually damages the tissues in your joint. Try to keep your elbow below your shoulder when you sleep.

Get off your arm

Side sleepers who sleep directly on top of their arm often wake up with shoulder pain because of the sustained force that compresses the joint all night. You can ease this pressure by rotating your body slightly forward or backward to free the arm from between you and the mattress. 

Change your pillow

If your pillow is too thick and firm or too flat and low, it puts your shoulder in an awkward position.

Change your mattress

Channel Goldilocks when you shop for a mattress. If it’s too soft, your body sinks in, and your shoulder gets trapped in the valley. If it’s too firm, it increases the pressure on your shoulder. Look for a mattress that’s “just right.” 

Other causes of shoulder pain

Your sleep position can lead to temporary soreness or long-term damage, and we can help with both. 

We thoroughly examine your shoulder structure to determine its range of motion and functionality. We also use the latest imaging technology to determine whether your shoulder pain may be due to an underlying injury. Some common findings are:


Drs. King and Cuomo develop a treatment plan to address the root cause of your shoulder pain, which may include physical therapy, medication, injections, modified activities, or surgery. 

Whatever your shoulder pain calls for, you can trust our experienced team to approach your treatment thoroughly, conservatively, and personally. 

To learn more about shoulder pain and your treatment options, contact us at Tuscaloosa Orthopedic & Joint Institute at 205-391-4440. 

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