How Can I Get To Sleep With Rotator Cuff Pain? 

Grabbing a relaxed 40-winks, or getting a good night’s sleep, can feel almost impossible when suffering from shoulder pain (rotator cuff injury). Injuries to the shoulder (and neck area) that barely register throughout the day can suddenly turn monstrous upon going to bed.  

If sleep weren’t hugely important, then a restless night would be no biggie. But sleep is paramount to our well-being. Without appropriate periods of slumber, your body and mental health can deteriorate, and life’s daily tasks can become increasingly difficult. 

It’s why we are told that 8-hours of respite remains predominant for health. So how can you nab a proper night’s sleep when struggling with demonic shoulder pain? First off, you need to understand the pain you are going through. 

And chances are it’s your rotator cuff causing the issue. So, let’s look into that with this blog. 

What Is The Rotator Cuff? 

To understand what’s going on, it’s best to comprehend the importance of your rotator cuff. 

To those of a medical persuasion, the rotator cuff is your group of muscles and tendons that surround your shoulder joint. Basically, it’s the bit of your body that keeps your upper-arm bone firmly in the shallow socket of your shoulder. 

When the rotator cuff has been injured, it causes a dull ache across the shoulder region that gets worse when you move your arm away from your body. 

The risk of a rotator cuff injury becomes more common as you age, but is not limited purely to those of an infirm position. Individuals who are employed in jobs where repeated overhead motions are required (such as builders, painters, mechanics, athletes, etc) are also susceptible.

Rotator cuff tears can often be a direct result of a single injury. When this is the case, we would recommend seeking medical evaluation – especially as surgery could be required. 

The prolonged injury will require careful management before the sufferer can return to activities, which is where physical therapy aids in the flexibility and strength of muscles surrounding the shoulder joint; making for a quicker and less painful recovery. 

Getting To Sleep With Rotator Cuff Pain 

While there is no standard approach when it comes to sleeping comfortably with a rotator cuff injury, there are a few things that you can do before hitting the sack. 

Before heading to bed, try icing your shoulder (or using a heat pack, if you prefer) for between 15 and 20 minutes. This helps to reduce inflammation and ease pain, but remember to wrap your ice/heat pack in a towel; this helps to prevent burning and damage to the skin. 

You can also take regular over-the-counter medication. Taking painkillers (around 30 minutes before going to bed) can keep pain at bay until you drift off to sleep, but check in with your doctor for an appropriate prescription. Anti-inflammatory and non-steroidal medications are best, such as ibuprofen. 

Furthermore, try reading something. This may sound silly, but reading a book before turning off the lights helps to relax the mind. You can do this while wearing your heat/ice pack, and it is also a good way to make yourself tired. 

Get yourself lost in a good novel, and you’d be surprised at how much better you sleep. 

Alternative Sleeping Positions For Resting With Shoulder Pain 

Those who bear with discomfort in their shoulder, and rotator cuff injuries, usually find that they have to adjust their sleeping position in order to gain a proper night’s sleep. It can take up to 6-weeks post-surgery before sleeping in a horizontal position is comfortable again. 

However, don’t panic! There are different sleeping positions that you can try out. 

Firstly, try resting in a reclined position. You might find that this proves more comfortable than laying flat-out on your back. Create a tailored position that best suits you with some pillows behind your back. Move them about as you start lying down. 

If it feels easier to sleep upright, or in a high-incline position, a reclining armchair could be your answer. Otherwise, if you are lucky enough to have an adjustable bed, definitely use it! Also, try placing a pillow under your injured arm for extra support. This supplementary support can reduce stress and pressure on your injured side. 

Where possible, rest on your stronger side. Keep your injured shoulder away from weighty pressures. For instance, if your left side is hurting, rest on your right shoulder. 

Best Sleeping Positions For Rotator Cuff Pain

We all have a preference when it comes to sleeping position. Some of us find that sleeping on our back provides the best runway for a peaceful night. Others find lying face down, or on their side, makes for a better night’s rest. 

However, regardless of your chosen position, you still need to pay your shoulder close attention. We’d say that the best option to avoid pain when sleeping with rotator cuff pain is to rest on your back. 

When you sleep on your back, your shoulders are placed under less pressure. This neutral position helps to keep your spine aligned, with the opportunity to prop your arm/shoulder with extra support (bring on the pillows!), and keep your chest unrestricted.  

If you insist on sleeping on your stomach, you can prevent pulsating rounds of pain by setting up proper support. Although sleeping ‘on your front’ can cause increased pain across your shoulder area, you can place a pillow underneath your hips and pelvis. 

Again, this might sound silly, but in practice, this extra pillow (or a rolled-up blanket or towel) will align your lower and upper body; which prevents your shoulders from sagging. 

We would not recommend sleeping on your side, if you can help it. Sleeping on your left or right side will create significant discomfort when dealing with shoulder impingement/rotator cuff pain. However, if you can only grab some shuteye by sleeping this way, try to rest on your pain-free shoulder. 

While keeping the shoulder in a rested state remains essential for the first stage of recovery, having it completely immobilized for an extended period can actually thicken the connective tissue – resulting in a frozen shoulder.  

As we have spoken about in previous blogs, sometimes called adhesive capsulitis, frozen shoulder is a painful and often debilitating condition that does exactly what it says on the tin. It freezes the shoulder, so it becomes so tight that it’s difficult to move at all.

It’s why we would recommend speaking to a physical therapist, as they can help guide you towards recovery. 

Physical Therapy For Rotator Cuff Pain 

If your rotator cuff is injured and not treated appropriately, it can lead to degeneration of the shoulder joint tissues. You don’t want this to happen, as the situation can potentially cause osteoarthritis and eventually a permanent loss of mobility in your arm.  

Physical therapy is generally the first line of treatment most doctors will prescribe. There are specific therapeutic exercises that a physical therapist can prescribe that improves strength and flexibility in the rotator cuff. 

If you’ve had shoulder surgery, physical therapy is an integral part of the recovery process. 

Alternative Home Treatments For Rotator Cuff Injuries

Generally, if the injury to your rotator cuff is mild, soreness and pain will eventually dissipate independently with only minimal care. However, you’ll need to avoid movements or strenuous activities. 

You’ll certainly want to stay away from lifting heavy weights until your rotator cuff has healed! 

Applying hot or cold packs can relieve pain and swelling in the area. Certain OTC (over-the-counter) pain medications like acetaminophen or Advil might also help. 

You can perform stretches at home to help counteract rotator cuff pain. Here are some examples:

Doorway Stretch 

Get your muscles warmed up by standing in an open doorway and spreading your arms to the side. Grab a hold of the doorway with each hand (preferably at, or below, shoulder height), and lean forward through the doorway until you feel a slight stretch. Keep your back straight as you shift your weight across your foot. Once you feel a stretch in your shoulder, stop and repeat. Do not overstretch, as you’ll cause yourself more discomfort!

Lawnmower Stretch

Set yourself by standing up, with your feet shoulder-width apart. Then place one side of a resitance band under the foot across from your injured shoulder/arm. Grab hold of the band with your injured arm, ensuring that the band works diagonally across your body.

Keeping your other hand on your hip, and without locking your knees, bend slightly at the waist. This should feel like you are firing up a lawnmower in slow motion. Straighten yourself up while pulling your elbow across your body. Keep your shoulders realxed, and contract your shoulder blades together as you stand up.

Free Rotator Cuff Injury Consultation 

If you’re not sure whether physical therapy is right for you, we offer all new patients the option to have a complimentary 20-minute consultation with one of our expert Physical Therapists. 

You can do this over the telephone or by booking a Discovery Visit at the clinic. 

There is no obligation to book treatment after the call either – that’s entirely up to you. 

Instead, we’ll chat with you about your current symptoms and recommend the best way forward.

Andrew Vertson