There are multiple reasons why many people don’t get enough sleep at night. One of the main reasons is physical discomfort, which can be due to inadequate neck support or a room temperature that’s too warm or too cold. Often, the cause of lack of sleep due to physical discomfort is shoulder pain.

There are several conditions that can cause shoulder pain during and after sleeping. One common cause is an injury to the rotator cuff. The rotator cuff is a group of muscles and tendons that are attached to the bones of the shoulder joint. These muscles and tendons allow you to move your shoulder while at the same time keeping it stable. An injury to the rotator cuff can be caused by tendonitis, strains, or partial or complete tears.

Can Sleeping On Your Side Cause Shoulder Pain?

Tendonitis occurs when muscles in the shoulder are injured or overused, causing inflammation. An inflamed shoulder is painful. The pain can be felt during the day, at night, or both. Tendonitis is caused by keeping the arm in the same position for long periods of time, such as sitting at a computer all day. Another cause is sleeping on your side at night, which can cause your arm to fall asleep. Other causes of tendonitis are sports injuries, poor posture, tears, and aging.

Rotator Cuff Tears

Rotator cuff tears can be caused by a single event or by repeated motion over time that eventually results in a small tear that can grow bigger over time – think of baseball pitchers and their repetitive arm motion. Besides rotator cuff injuries, other conditions that cause shoulder pain are osteoarthritis, bursitis, and shoulder impingement:


In this condition, the cartilage — the material that provides cushioning to the ends of bones — degrades. Degradation of cartilage in the shoulder joint causes shoulder pain over time. Osteoarthritis occurs with age as well as from trauma and injury. Symptoms include a decreased range of motion in the shoulder joint and stiffness and pain with movement. You may also hear clicking or grinding sounds in your shoulder when you move it.


Bursae are fluid-filled sacs that cushion tissues around joints. Shoulder bursitis occurs when the bursae around the shoulder joint become inflamed or irritated. Symptoms include redness and stiffness in the shoulder, local tenderness, and increased pain from movement or pressure.

Shoulder Impingement

Shoulder impingement occurs when the tissues that surround the rotator cuff grind or rub against adjacent bones and tissues. This rubbing can eventually lead to bursitis, tendonitis, or bone spurs. This condition is characterized by weakness in the shoulder and pain at the top or outer part of the shoulder.

Prevention and Treatment of Nighttime Shoulder Pain

The duration of your shoulder pain from sleeping depends on your sleeping posture, as well as on your underlying medical conditions. Here are some things you can do to prevent waking up with a sore shoulder:

  • Avoid applying direct pressure on your shoulder while sleeping. Sleeping on your side, sleeping with your arm under your pillow, or sleeping with your elbow above your head can irritate the rotator cuff and cause discomfort during sleep, especially if you sleep on the same side every night. You can wake up with a dull pain or ache in the shoulder and have a reduced range of motion due to stiffness.
  • If you sleep on the shoulder that hurts when you wake up, try switching sides when you sleep to give your sore shoulder a break while your opposite shoulder supports your body during sleep. You can also sleep on your back so that your body weight is more evenly distributed and you’re not putting any stress on your shoulders.
  • Regular exercise strengthens the muscles and tendons in your shoulders, neck, and spine by helping to increase range of motion and strengthen your upper body, including the rotator cuff. A physiotherapist can help prescribe appropriate exercises for you.
  • Add or remove pillows to support your body and shoulders.

How To Relieve Shoulder Pain After Sleeping

Applying heat and cold is a natural way to relieve pain in your shoulder after sleep.

  • If you have osteoarthritis, apply moist heat to the shoulder joint to ease stiffness and relax muscles.
  • For a strained shoulder, first apply ice to reduce inflammation and pain, then apply heat to reduce stiffness.
  • If you have tendonitis in your shoulder, apply ice to reduce inflammation and pain.
  • If heat and cold don’t relieve your shoulder pain, you can consider taking non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs for temporary pain relief, such as acetaminophen, NSAIDs, or Naproxen.

When to See a Doctor

For most people, shoulder pain after sleeping resolves within 48 hours. For some people, however, the pain becomes persistent. If self-help measures don’t work, it’s time to see a physiotherapist.

If your shoulder hurts longer than a few weeks, if you have additional pain or limited movement, and if you regularly wake up at night because of your shoulder pain, it’s time to consult your doctor.

Other signs that indicate a need for medical attention are grinding, snapping, clicking, or popping noises in your shoulder; visible growths or masses in your shoulder; and an inability to perform your regular tasks of daily living.