The sound of our alarm clocks whenever they go off is, in itself, already torture. Add a few creaks, pops, and some muscle soreness in your shoulders there, and it’s even worse. So, you might be asking: Why do my shoulders hurt when I wake up?
Well, there are at least 5 reasons why your shoulder hurts after sleeping. This includes trouble with your shoulder blade, a shoulder injury, or even a stiff back. More detail on these later but I’ll also talk about the following topics:
- The best treatments for a sore shoulder joint,
- How you can avoid waking up with shoulder pain, and
- Other frequently asked questions
Now before you get all cranky, let’s finally uncover the root of your problem.
Top 5 reasons why your shoulder hurts when you wake up
As frustrating as it is, shoulder aches are common all around the world.
After the back and knee, shoulder pain is the third most common reason why people visit their doctor. (1)
Now, there are several reasons why your shoulders hurt. But, these five are the usual suspects:
Poor quality of sleep
Optimal sleep means consistently getting 7-9 hours of shut-eye at the same time of the day. (2)
This seems increasingly difficult for students as 75% of them reported chronic lack of sleep. (3)
As you might very well know, this problem isn’t just limited to students. Fully-fledged adults like you and I experience this, too.
In any case, there are different factors that can lead to poor sleep quality, such as:
- Blue-light exposure
- Exposure to tobacco
- Psychological problems
- Room scent
Chronic sleep deprivation will eventually catch up on us. It can lead to symptoms such as pain that can happen anywhere in the body, including the shoulder joint. (4)
Each time you move your arm, the connection between your muscles and bones needs to synchronize. The rotator cuff keeps our arm steady, while your upper arm bone and shoulder blade roll and glide with it.
Poor shoulder mechanics can disrupt this synchronicity and evolve into shoulder problems, such as:
- Shoulder impingement
- Rotator cuff tendinitis
- Rotator cuff tears
- Frozen shoulder
Speaking of frozen shoulder, this injury develops in a very subtle way for a few months. It progresses from shoulder pain to, eventually, joint stiffness.
You probably won’t notice that you have one until you find it difficult and painful to reach for stuff above your head
If the situation gets worse, a frozen shoulder can cause persistent shoulder pain even as you’re waking up.
More about this: A general guide to frozen shoulder
Modern society is constantly in a back-slouching posture. Using a phone, typing on laptops, even driving a car. These all add up until we end up with the loss of spinal mobility. (5)
About this, our spine and shoulder joints are interconnected. This means that loss of spinal movement can lead to an overcompensating shoulder.
If you rely on it too much, your shoulder can become disgruntled and you will then feel discomfort.
Not all symptoms from one part of the body originate on that same body part. This is especially true with the shoulder as tons of nerves run through it.
Random shoulder pain can also come from issues of the neck, jaw, head, and even from vital organs such as the heart.
5 best treatments for morning shoulder pain
Elastic bandages are cheap, accessible, and easy to use. Wrap it around your shoulder snuggly but not too tight. This provides more support to your shoulder.
Make sure to loosen the bandage at once if you notice:
- Pins and needles sensation
- Numbness on your arms and hands.
There are nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS) that are available over the counter. It helps in alleviating shoulder pain by blocking pain signals. This can help calm down even severe shoulder pain.
Use only if you experience shoulder pain that is so intolerable to prevent drug dependence or overdose.
Examples include Aspirin, Ibuprofen, and Naproxen.
If you’re wary of the side effects of medication, then cold therapy is another good option. Ice has been used extensively in the past to deal with acute injuries.
And rightfully so since it helps (6):
- Bring down swelling
- Induce Relaxation
- Reduce shoulder pain and inflammation.
- Take the edge off muscles spasms
Cold therapy in the form of cold packs or an ice bag can be used. Apply it over the shoulder with a thin cloth in-between to prevent frostbites. Make sure to keep it in place for 20 minutes.
If the shoulder pain has been going on for quite some time, hot packs are the way to go. Aside from pain relief, hot packs can help (7):
- Boost flexibility
- Improve the motor function of muscles
- Increase blood flow
- Provide a smoother muscle contraction
Place a hot pack, or even a hot water bottle, on the shoulder for 20 minutes. Keep in mind the temperature of the water so it doesn’t burn your skin.
Unlike previous entries, physical therapy isn’t defined by one type of treatment. It combines different forms of evidence-based therapy and picks out the best one for your needs.
A trip to a physical therapist starts with an assessment of your signs, symptoms, and deficits. He/she then uses that data to make the necessary treatment plan to deal with your shoulder pain.
The duration of your rehab will depend on your condition and how quickly you can achieve each benchmark of improvement.
How you can wake up without your shoulder hurting
Avoid sleeping on your painful shoulder
About 67% of people tend to sleep on their affected shoulder. (8) Being in this position for a long period can contribute to that sore, achy feeling when you wake up.
Try to get a good night’s sleep on your back or your opposite shoulder. It may take a while to get used to, I know. But, it will only be until things start to calm down.
Related: Why shoulders can hurt when you sleep on your side
Add more pillows
If you have worn-out pillows, you tend to have less support for your neck and shoulders. You are then more likely to assume a sleeping position with your head tilted.
To avoid this (and the consequent shoulder pain), add more pillows so that your neck is properly supported.
Reduce alcohol intake
Bad news for heavy drinkers: Heavy alcohol consumption is notorious for increasing inflammation in the body. (9)
This can lead to more shoulder pain when you wake up.
The key here is to drink moderately. About 1-2 bottles per day should be okay, as recommended by the CDC. (10)
When to see your doctor
You should set an appointment with your physician immediately if your shoulder pain:
- Doesn’t settle down as you go through your day
- Is accompanied by chest tightness, difficulty breathing, or stomach ache
- Is associated with loss of weight or sleep
- Severe shoulder pain that doesn’t go away with pain medication
What is the healthiest sleep position?
The best sleep position for your shoulders is the one where you don’t have to wake up feeling sore and cranky.
Instead of focusing on your posture, consider your sleep environment. Ask yourself these questions:
- Are your pillows ample enough to support your shoulder joint?
- Does your mattress contour to your shape?
- Are you hydrated before you sleep?
These trivial things add up in giving you the healthiest and most blissful sleep.
Why do my arms feel numb after waking up?
Waking up with numb arms and hands is brought on by nerve or circulation issues.
You may have been sleeping too much on one side of your body. This can lead to compression to either your nerves or blood vessels.
The numbness should resolve shortly after you change your sleeping position.
What type of pillow is best for sleeping?
When it comes to comfort, it’s the shape and number of pillows that play a more important role; not fluffiness.
A combination of using a standard, cervical, and shoulder pillow is found to be the most optimal and comfortable sleeping tool. (11)
A night of blissful sleep can do a lot of good to the body. It helps us feel fresh and rejuvenated. In any case, we hope things work well for you as you deal with your troublesome shoulder pain.
- Artus, Majid et al. “The painful shoulder: an update on assessment, treatment, and referral.” The British journal of general practice: the journal of the Royal College of General Practitioners vol. 64,626 (2014): e593-5. doi: 10.3399/bjgp14X681577
- Chaput, Jean-Philippe et al. “Sleeping hours: what is the ideal number and how does age impact this?.” Nature and science of sleep vol. 10 421-430. 27 Nov. 2018, doi: 10.2147/NSS.S163071
- Altun, Insaf et al. “The contributing factors to poor sleep experiences in according to the university students: A cross-sectional study.” Journal of research in medical sciences: the official journal of Isfahan University of Medical Sciences vol. 17,6 (2012): 557-61. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3634295/
- Finan, Patrick H et al. “The association of sleep and pain: an update and a path forward.” The journal of pain vol. 14,12 (2013): 1539-52. DOI: 10.1016/j.jpain.2013.08.007
- Barrett, Eva et al. “Is thoracic spine posture associated with shoulder pain, range of motion and function? A systematic review.” Manual therapy vol. 26 (2016): 38-46. DOI: 10.1016/j.math.2016.07.008
- White, Gillian E, and Greg D Wells. “Cold-water immersion and other forms of cryotherapy: physiological changes potentially affecting recovery from high-intensity exercise.” Extreme physiology & medicine vol. 2,1 26. 1 Sep. 2013, doi: 10.1186/2046-7648-2-26
- Dehghan, Morteza, and Farinaz Farahbod. “The efficacy of thermotherapy and cryotherapy on pain relief in patients with acute low back pain, a clinical trial study.” Journal of clinical and diagnostic research: JCDR vol. 8,9 (2014): LC01-4. doi: 10.7860/JCDR/2014/7404.4818
- Kempf, Bo, and Alice Kongsted. “Association between the side of unilateral shoulder pain and preferred sleeping position: a cross-sectional study of 83 Danish patients.” Journal of manipulative and physiological therapeutics vol. 35,5 (2012): 407-12. DOI: 10.1016/j.jmpt.2012.04.015
- Imhof, A et al. “Effect of alcohol consumption on systemic markers of inflammation.” Lancet (London, England) vol. 357,9258 (2001): 763-7. DOI: 10.1016/S0140-6736(00)04170-2
- “Excessive Alcohol Use”. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. https://www.cdc.gov/chronicdisease/resources/publications/factsheets/alcohol.htm
- Liu, Shuo-Fang et al. “Shape design of an optimal comfortable pillow based on the analytic hierarchy process method.” Journal of chiropractic medicine vol. 10,4 (2011): 229-39. doi: 10.1016/j.jcm.2011.04.002