Side-sleeping for Sore Shoulders

February 8, 2013 | by


My patients frequently ask me what’s the healthiest way to sleep.  If they’d asked the American Chiropractic Association, the primary recommendation would be to sleep on your back.  But for people who have shoulder issues, the answer is not always that straightforward.  Many people can only get comfortable lying on one side, but then find out that they don’t know what to do with their arms, and worse yet, wake up with painful shoulders or tingling and numbness in their hands.  While it’s possible to keep your spine in alignment in a side-lying position, it often takes a bit of forethought to setup your position to protect your vulnerable shoulders from collapsing and rolling inwards.  When the shoulders fall inwards (picture someone slouching at a computer), the nerves that travel from the neck to the hands get compressed, resulting in symptoms of hand tingling, numbness, and weakness (you feel like your hand has “gone to sleep”).


One tip you can use to keep your shoulders open is to wedge a leg-pillow in between your arms, and hug it tightly.  The pillow should be placed vertically, with its base touching your mattress, and your top arm draped over it.  Unlike a traditional soft pillow, the hard foam of the leg-pillow will retain its shape, and will prevent your shoulders from collapsing into it.  If you don’t have a leg-pillow, a swim buoy or yoga block may be used as a substitute.  You can put a second leg-pillow between your knees to keep your spine in optimal alignment, which will take stress off your low back and hips.  Try this setup tonight for better shoulder health.  If you have any questions about getting this setup to work for you, please email



Comment from Eitan
Time July 2, 2015 at 2:14 pm

Hello Dr,

I saw your post regarding side sleeping and shoulder pain. Thank you for offering to take questions regarding this issue.

I toss turing the night from shoulder pain. My sleep tracker says I am restless approx 41 times each night, and I think this is causing some fatigue during the day.

My shoulders are also very tight, and they make popping sounds when I attempt to stretch them.

I exercise somewhat regularly 1-3x’s a week, and am fit enough to do a number of sets of pushups and chinups/pullups.

At what point would You recommend I see a an orthopedist to have my shoulder looked at to improve my sleep?

Thank you,

Comment from David Mount
Time November 12, 2015 at 8:30 am

Thanks for the post. As an ultrarunner in my mid-50s (currently injury-free!) I’m always looking for a way to explain this to people. Very helpful. Hope your running is still going well.

Comment from Dr. Jess
Time November 12, 2015 at 8:37 am

Hello Eitan.

Thank you for your inquiry. Starting with an orthopedist is recommended to rule out derangement in the shoulders. If your shoulders are healthy, then you may want to look into:

1. Active Release Techniques ( to help break up scar tissue around the shoulders.
2. Pilates
3. Yoga

Hope this helps!


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