12 Causes of Shoulder Pain at Night and What You Can Do About Them

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Shoulder Pain at Night

Shoulder pain at night can ruin a good night’s sleep and wreck your productivity the next day. In fact, shoulder pain that keeps you up at night can cause a cycle of making you experience even more pain than you would if you had had a good night’s sleep. In a study conducted by UCLA, individuals who were purposefully kept awake from 11 p.m. to 3 a.m. for just one night had higher levels of several natural chemicals in their bodies that contribute to inflammation. As inflammation increases, so does your pain response. If you’re experiencing shoulder pain at night, it’s important to determine the cause and then seek out remedies to relieve it as soon as possible.

Here are 12 reasons you may be having shoulder pain at night and 10 remedies to help you find relief.

12 Causes of Shoulder Pain at Night

Your probably been wondering – “Why does my shoulder hurt at night?” You are not alone. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 9% of people experience some kind of shoulder pain. Just as the causes of shoulder pain vary from person to person, so do the causes of why they experience shoulder pain at night.

1) You’re not sleeping well, which is causing an increased inflammatory response in your body.

Just as the UCLA study found, not getting a good night’s sleep is stressful on your body, which causes inflammatory response chemicals in your body to increase. Inflammation causes you to feel pain because your body is sending you a message that something is off in your body, or out of balance and needs to be addressed.

2) You were tense when you went to bed.

If you’re tense before you settle down to sleep, it will undoubtedly impact your sleep. Stiff, overworked muscles that are already in an agitated state when you go to bed will only get worse when you’re lying still. Our bodies relieve tension through gentle movement and stretching, not prolonged periods of stillness.

3) You’re not moving or not moving enough while you sleep.

Our bodies are designed for motion, not the amount of sitting that the modern person does in a day. So, going from a lot of stillness (driving, sitting at a desk, sitting on the couch) during the day to more stillness at night can exacerbate the stiffness in our bodies, and this is why we can experience more shoulder pain at night than we do during the day.

4) Your sleeping position may be causing or contributing to your shoulder pain.

The vast majority of people – 74% – sleep on their sides. This puts an undue amount of pressure on their shoulders. Sometimes simply lying on your back when you can go to sleep can alleviate shoulder pain. In fact, many doctors suggest that sleeping on our backs is one of the best ways to alleviate back and shoulder pain.

5) Your mattress and/or pillows may be causing or contributing to your shoulder pain.

Since most people sleep on their sides, it’s especially important to get proper support for your head and body to alleviate pressure on your shoulder. Enough pillows, body pillows, and a supportive mattress can help alleviate nighttime shoulder pain.

6) You might have a repetitive strain injury.

Repetitive tasks done on a computer or other repeated actions at work may be affecting your shoulder more than you realize. People in a wide variety for professions, from office workers to nurses, construction workers, cashiers, and others, can suffer from repetitive strain injuries that impact their shoulders. Often, we are so busy during our workdays that messages from our bodies get ignored. It’s not until we’re finally resting that we feel the signals of shoulder pain.

7) You might have poor posture.

Poor posture can cause the muscles that normally support your skeletal structure to be weak. This results in other muscles in your body, ligaments, and even your nerves to be strained as they have to “pick up the slack” for your muscles that would normally be used to maintain proper posture and support your body. This imbalance can cause shoulder and neck pain, which manifests itself even more at night.

8) You may have torn or injured your rotator cuff.

Collectively, your rotator cuff is a group of muscles – four in all – that covers your shoulder. You may have heard athletes or body builders complain about injuring their rotator cuffs, or you may have experienced this kind of injury yourself. A key symptom of a rotator cuff injury or tear is pain and difficulty sleeping at night. (In addition, there are a host of symptoms you might experience during the day, such a difficulty reaching for things or limitations in your normal range of motion.)

You can injure or tear your rotator cuff from working out too hard, such as lifting weights that are too heavy for your current level of fitness, or simply from repetitive movements. The key is to listen to your symptoms. Severe shoulder pain at night is a sign that you need to take immediate action to address the problem and seek the opinion of a medical professional.

9) You may have tendinitis and/or bursitis in your shoulder.

Overuse of your shoulder muscles can result in tendinitis and painful inflammation. You can also experience bursitis, which results when your bursa – the sacs filled with fluid that aid in shoulder movement – become inflamed. These types of injuries can result from tearing or injuring your rotator cuff, or they may result on their own from overuse over a period of years, or in isolated cases of overly stressing your shoulder joint. Tendinitis and bursitis are inflammatory responses in your body that can manifest themselves at night when your body goes to work on repairing damaged tissue.

 10) You might have a condition known as frozen shoulder.

Frozen shoulder is a condition that develops over time and manifests itself as pain and stiffness in your shoulder that eventually goes away. But it can persist for a period of one to three years. It can result from a period of not being able to move your arm, such as after a surgery or stroke. People who have frozen shoulder can experience a dull pain in one shoulder that eventually goes away, but then turns into stiffness. Sometimes scar tissue can develop from the lack of movement and less natural lubricating fluid in the joint. Frozen shoulder often causes pain that keeps you up at night.

 11) You may have dislocated your shoulder.

While it might seem that you would know immediately if you have a dislocated your shoulder (and many people do know), it’s also possible that you can dislocate your shoulder and not realize it, that is – until you’re trying to go to sleep! Your shoulder joint is one of your body’s most movable joints, so it’s more prone to dislocation than other joints in your body. Some signs that your shoulder may dislocated include a lack of your normal range of motion or a complete inability to move the shoulder joint. You might also see visual signs of deformity, swelling, or bruising. And of course, you’ll feel pain. If you do think your shoulder is dislocated, you should seek medical attention immediately.

 12) You may have arthritis.

As with other joints, you can get arthritis in your shoulders that can keep you up at night. Arthritis in your shoulder can develop over a period of year and even decades. There are different forms or shoulder arthritis, including osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis.

Osteoarthritis is a degenerative condition that result from cartilage breaking down in your joint and/or when bone spurs develop in the joint that cause movement to be especially painful and difficult. Genetics play a role in shoulder arthritis, but most often it’s caused by an injury to the shoulder, whether acute or from repetitive use over time.

Rheumatoid arthritis, on the other hand, is an autoimmune condition. While the causes of rheumatoid arthritis are not fully understood, there are some treatments that can help alleviate the symptoms and slow the progression of the disease.

Remedies for Nighttime Shoulder Pain

Once you identify the root causes of why you’re experiencing shoulder pain at night, you can take steps to address them. If you’re experiencing shoulder pain at night, especially pain that wakes you up, it’s important to consult with a medical professional. Trained and licensed specialists who can help you properly diagnose shoulder pain include:

  1. Chiropractors
  2. Massage therapists
  3. Orthopedic doctors
  4. Physical therapists

In addition, here are ways you can alleviate shoulder pain at night:

 1) Do some light stretching for your shoulders, neck, and back before you go to bed.

Doing yoga or light stretches, particularly for your head, neck, shoulders, and back before you go to sleep can help to alleviate muscle tension in your body. As our bodies get stiffer when we are still, stretching before bed and can give your body a “head start” in delaying the stiffness that comes from sleep.

2) Use a Gua Sha muscle scraper tool on your shoulder.

Gua Sha is a 2000-year-old Eastern medicine technique that is used to mobilize and stimulate soft tissues. A Gua Sha muscle scraper is a flat, slightly curved hand held tool that you gently and repeatedly “scrape” over your muscles. When you apply a Gua Sha tool to the skin over and around your shoulder, it releases adhesions underneath that cause pain and stiffness. Clinical studies had found that Gua Sha successfully decreases pain, reduces inflammation, and increases blood flow to afflicted areas.

 3) Ice before bed.

 Applying an ice pack on your shoulder before you go to bed can also dramatically reduce inflammation and pain in your shoulder.

 4) Try to sleep on your back.

Before you fall asleep, try lying on your back and see if you can go to sleep that way. Getting in this habit can take a lot of pressure off of your shoulder, and not to mention, it’s good for back and skeletal structure.

 5) Try to improve your sleep patterns.

While it can hard to sleep when you have shoulder pain, sleeplessness can make pain symptoms worse. Going to bed at a consistent hour can get your body into a regular rhythm of sleeping.

Other actions you can take to prepare your body for sleep are:

  • Avoiding caffeinated beverages after 10 a.m.
  • Dimming your lights 1-2 hours before bedtime, which simulates natural light works and lessens brain stimulation.
  • Staying off your phone screen and turning off the TV at least one hour before you try to go to sleep, for the same reasons as above – to calm your eyes and mind and lessen stimulation.
  • Using slow breathing and meditation techniques and listening to mellow music before bed to achieve a state of calmness before you fall asleep.

6) Consider getting a new mattress and/or more supportive pillows.

In general, you should replace your mattress every 10 years. But even if your mattress is fairly new, if you’re waking up with pain and stiffness, it could be that your mattress is either too soft or too stiff. A much less expensive alternative is to buy pillows that better support your head and neck. You might also consider getting a full body pillow that can provide more support and take pressure off of your shoulder when you sleep.

 7) Identify whether your shoulder pain is coming from repetitive motion.

A medical professional can help you diagnose the origins of your shoulder pain. Sometimes making simple ergonomic adjustments to your desk setup or repeated motions you’re engaged in, whether for work or play, can eliminate shoulder pain.

 8) Give yourself regular posture audits.

Work on your posture. Try the “on the hour trick.” Every hour, whether you’re walking or sitting, give yourself a posture check. Are you slouching? Is your neck leaning too far forward? Whether you have good posture or bad, it’s a habit. And habits can be improved by consistently and repeatedly working on them.

9) Take an over the counter anti-inflammatory.

Over the counter anti-inflammatories are generally safe for most people, and in some cases,  they can help your body to heal faster simply by reducing inflammation. But if you experience anything more than mild shoulder pain or pain that lasts for more than two nights, or if you are unsure of the cause of your shoulder pain, it’s always best to consult with a medical professional.

10) Consult with a medical professional.

As mentioned earlier, there are a variety of causes of shoulder pain at night. The safest bet is to consult with a medical professional who is trained and licensed to properly diagnose your shoulder condition. And if you don’t get a satisfactory answer from one professional, always seek out other opinions.

Some of the treatments a medical professional might apply to reduce your nighttime shoulder pain include:

  • Physical therapy to help with flexibility and strength imbalances
  • Chiropractic adjustments to lessen pressure and improve mobility
  • Muscle scraping treatments
  • Massage therapy
  • Anti-inflammatory medications
  • Steroids and/or joint lubricant injections
  • Acupuncture and/or acupressure
  • Surgery, such as arthroscopic shoulder surgery

What’s most important if you’re experiencing shoulder pain at night is to be proactive about addressing it. Research shows that people who are proactive about taking care of health concerns tend to do better than those who procrastinate or avoid dealing with the issue. You should never be “too busy” to take care of your health because without it, you won’t get much done anyway! If you’re dedicated to addressing the cause of your shoulder pain and proactive about applying solutions to remedy it, you’ll start sleeping better and enjoying your waking hours even more.

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Hin is a Canadian National Olympic Lifter, CrossFit Regionals competitor and Personal Trainer. He enjoys helping others in their fitness journey and overcoming their limitations. Hin is also the founder of Sidekick.

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