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You get into a comfortable position and drift off to sleep, only to wake up with a sharp pain in your shoulder. So you change positions and go back to sleep, but wake up in the morning with a dull ache and stiffness in the same shoulder.

Whether it’s in the morning or not, an achy, stiff shoulder can signal a rotator cuff problem. You’d be wise to get it checked out, because if left untreated, rotator cuff issues can lead to weakness and loss of motion in the affected shoulder.

What exactly is the rotator cuff?

The rotator cuff is a group of muscles and tendons that wrap around the head of your upper arm bone and attach it to the shoulder blade. It is appropriately named, because together these connective tissues not only form a cuff-like structure to hold your shoulder in place, but they allow your arm to rotate in different directions.

At Next Step Orthopedics, Dr. Nickson diagnoses and treats all kinds of rotator cuff issues, from acute injuries to degeneration resulting from overuse. But one thing he wants his shoulder patients to keep in mind is that the way you sleep — your “sleep posture” — can affect the rotator cuff.

Sleep and your shoulders

Poor sleeping posture can put pressure on the rotator cuff and even cause further damage to the tendons and shoulder joint. Here’s a breakdown on sleeping positions that may harm the rotator cuff and better alternatives that are more shoulder-friendly.

Side sleepers

On your side, you’re putting all the weight of your upper body on the shoulder joint. As your body relaxes, the pressure on your shoulder stresses the rotator cuff, which can lead to inflammation and the formation of tiny tears.

One possible solution is to try switching which side you sleep on each night. This won’t be a totally successful fix, of course, because most people change positions during the course of the night.

A better side-sleeping position is lying on the opposite shoulder with the painful shoulder toward the ceiling. Then place the pillow in the armpit of the injured shoulder to hold it up slightly and take pressure off the rotator cuff.

Front sleepers

When you sleep on your stomach, your arms have to go somewhere. Bending them and tucking them under your pillow may feel cozy, but it puts pressure on the shoulder capsule from the weight of your head and neck. Lying on your tummy with your arms at your sides against your body is better, but may not be as comfortable.

Back sleepers

Lying on your back is probably best for your rotator cuff. While you have more places to put your arms without damage, keeping them at your sides is preferable. If you put your arms up over your head, you may stretch the muscles and tendons of your rotator cuff.

If you have an adjustable bed, you can raise the head while still keeping your shoulders in a safe position. Reclining with a couple of pillows behind your back may be more comfortable for some patients.

Sleep is supposed to be restorative and healing, not cause you more pain. If you’re having shoulder pain and want to get it checked out, come in to see Dr. Nickson, and he’ll help you get back to sweet dreams and pain-free days. Call us at (972) 547-0047 or book an appointment online.

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