How Do You Sleep with a Sore Shoulder and After Shoulder Surgery

Shoulder Pain SleepingAs a Physical Therapist, one of the most common questions I get is, “How do you sleep with a sore shoulder?”

If you are a side sleeper, try to avoid sleeping on the painful shoulder for a couple of weeks. Sleep on the opposite side and place your painful arm on top of a half folded pillow to support it properly.  You should feel like you’re hugging the pillow.

If you recently had shoulder surgery, avoid sleeping on it for 4-6 weeks. Many people find that it is comfortable to sleep in a slightly reclined position using a bed wedge or even on their recliner. A chair is not as ideal, but early on it might be the only way you can get comfortable.

If you sleep on your back, roll up a small towel and place it under the arm of your painful shoulder. For stomach sleepers, try to keep your injured shoulder at your side, close to your body. You can also try adding a pillow under your chest to elevate your body to avoid straining your shoulder.

If you recently had shoulder surgery, avoid laying flat on your back. Using a wedge pillow is helpful and should be used if you prefer to sleep on your back.

The rest of the tips are for people with non-surgical shoulder pain. In other words, if you recently had shoulder surgery, these tips aren’t for you!

The Shoulder Gutter Trick

If you absolutely have to sleep on your injured shoulder, try the shoulder gutter trick. It’s a way to elevate the rest of your body, creating a sort of ‘gutter’ for your arm to rest in.

Position a pillow under your trunk/hips. Place a second pillow at your neck/head. Here’s the basic layout of the shoulder gutter pillow setup.

shoulder pain sleeping
sleeping with sore shoulder

Adjust the height by adding or folding pillows under your side so that you create space for your injured shoulder to rest.

You create better alignment for your shoulder by elevating your trunk with a pillow under your side.  This helps to relieve the pressure placed on your shoulder.

If you have difficulty making this work,  look for a wedge pillow that has a cutout for your shoulder.

Best Pillows for Shoulder Pain

I recently found an answer to sleeping on a painful shoulder. There is a specialized pillow for people who experience acid reflux. The MedCline Advanced Positioning Wedge is marketed to help with GERD or acid reflux, but the design is really ideal for people who sleep on their side.

The pillow relieves some of the pressure on your injured shoulder by allowing the shoulder to slide through the opening of the pillow.

It’s not cheap – the pillow costs about $200. But if you have been battling an injured shoulder for weeks or months, this might be the answer you’re looking for to get the sleep you need!

If you’re looking for a cheaper offer and you can tolerate lying on on your back, check out this wedge pillow for $30 on Amazon.

What are some tips that you’ve found to sleeping on a sore shoulder after an injury or after surgery?

Tim Fraticelli DPT, MBA, CFP®

Tim Fraticelli is a Physical Therapist, Certified Financial Planner™ and founder of He loves to teach PTs and OTs ways to save time and money in and out of the clinic, especially when it comes to documentation or continuing education. Follow him on YouTube for weekly videos on ways to improve your financial health.

4 thoughts on “How Do You Sleep with a Sore Shoulder and After Shoulder Surgery”

  1. Tim,
    I am 76 yrs old and have terriab le pain in both shoulders so I cannot sleep at night. My shoulder hurts ALL the time. Please give me some exercises to do to streghten My tendons.

  2. I am 63 year old woman. I damaged my shoulders many years ago helping an older gentleman work on his car. We have recently moved to a home that needed extensive carpentry work. I have been doing the majority of that myself and now my shoulders hurt all the time. I’ve been wondering the same question as you but I’ve also learned that what I eat affects my shoulders. I am thinking of looking into the book named pain free weight loss. I was interested in it for the inflammation diet. I thought you may be interested in that too. Hope it helps and you feel better.

  3. I’ve had right shoulder pain for more than 5 years now. I have been to a specialist and was told the pain is in my head. The chiropractor told me I have muscles that don’t relax so if I regularly go to the Chiro I’m okay, however that’s expensive and my medical aid doesn’t cover it all. My last visit with my GP mentioned a muscle in my neck that runs down that is inflamed and spasmed and that’s what’s causing my pain. It took me 5 years and many visits to different people to find something to explain it, today I’m in sick agony that my arm into my hand feels numb. I’ve tried countless stretches and moves and sometimes it feels like I will never find something to help.


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