Self Care – Shoulder pain when sleeping on your side

There are a number of common self-care strategies involving stretching, strengthening, and corrective sleep postures.


Change your sleeping position:

This position is a problem. Once the shoulder gets aggravated, sleeping on your side aggravates it at night. If the aggravated arm is on the bottom, the arm gets pushed forward in the socket. This activates the trigger point and it hurts. If it is the arm on top, draping it forward over-stretches the muscle. This also activates the trigger point and it hurts.


Start by sleeping on your side with the hurting arm behind you. Give it at least 10 minutes before you change position. It will likely be uncomfortable at first, especially if you have a firm mattress. After a few minutes, the glenohumeral joint will shift and it’ll feel better.

A king-sized pillow along your torso makes this position more comfortable by taking the twist out of your neck. Changing positions to sleep on your back, after the shoulder shifts, usually works. Seeing your bodyworker to get this thing fixed means that you won’t grow old with a gimpy shoulder.

Changing your sleeping position is important. I have worked on the shoulder of my gym partner off and on for a few years. He had quit complaining about it for some months and I asked him how it was doing. He shook his head and smiled and said that he started out sleeping like I had recommended and it quit bothering him.



Threading the Needle
from classpass.com

Does your Shoulder pinch when you are in the Threading the Needle pose? It usually means the humerus is a little forward in the socket. Laying in the sleep position shown above for 90-180 seconds usually eases the pinch in your shoulder. If not, go see your bodyworker.


NOTE: The traditional recommendation is that you lay on the “good” side and support your upper arm with a pillow so that the hurting arm is not draped down so that the muscle is stretched. This doesn’t fix the long term problem but is a good idea for temporary relief.

Stretching offers relief:

Stretching is more effective when it involves a full shoulder routine that helps to identify and resolve global problems in the shoulder instead of just addressing the local problem.

This is the standard stretch. It works in several variations. The most common is to use it in the shower with hot water on the back of the shoulder. Gentle repetitions using Active Isolated Stretching offers proven relief.




For more effective relief:

Some people use a tennis ball or other object to press into the back of the shoulder-blade. Unless you get some guidance from your therapist, you could actually aggravate it more than you help it by doing that. That being said, here is the general idea:

You can lean into a tennis ball to gently compress the trigger points. People usually go to this approach when it is chronically aggravated and they need relief. Some people find it easier to position and control the ball by laying on the floor instead of standing, I don’t. I find that leaning into the wall gives me greater control of the pressure so that I don’t overwork the trigger point. Here are a few tips:

  • Be gentle. Aggressive pressure will aggravate the spot.
  • Limit your time. Prolonged work may also aggravate the muscle.
  • Stay on the shoulder blade. Rolling onto the back of the humerus can make this worse.
  • Don’t expect to completely release the trigger point. This point always seems to be tender when pressed, even on people without shoulder pain.
  • Soothe the shoulder by stretching under a hot shower, icing the shoulder or using a vapo-coolant, like Icy-Hot.

Place the tennis ball in the center of the shoulder blade. Stay off the humeral head.

Gently apply pressure into the muscle. Don’t push too hard or roll around quickly.


This trigger point is perpetuated by a small problem in the position of the shoulder joint. Typically, it just gets worse over time. You should see a bodyworker that knows shoulder work. Most NMT therapists address this by working the rotator cuff tendons, especially subscapularis  which mobilizes the humeral head. Many people will let this problem linger for years and eventually get rotator cuff surgery when they could have addressed it earlier.

and some related posts…

Tony Preston has a practice in Atlanta, Georgia where he sees clients. He has written and taught about anatomy, trigger points and cranial therapies since the mid-90s.

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