How To Sleep On Your Side Without Hurting Your Shoulder
It’s a common injury, one that happens more often than you might think: someone falls asleep on their arm, rolls over onto an injured shoulder, and wakes up with pain shooting down their arm into their hand or fingers. This can be particularly problematic if your job requires you to use your hands for long periods of time each day, such as working at a computer all day. It also makes sense when considering how we sleep: while most people spend about half their lives sleeping, only about 15 percent actually do so in any given 24-hour period.
The reason this is so important has less to do with comfort (although that does matter) and more to do with protecting your rotator cuff muscles. These are the ones that connect our upper arms to our shoulders; they’re what allow us to move our heads from front to back, forward and backward, and even shrug our shoulders upward. When these muscles get strained, torn or otherwise hurt, it causes pain, which can make falling asleep much harder. You may find yourself waking up drowsily, wondering where that dull throbbing ache came from, or whether it will ever go away completely.
If you have trouble sleeping because of pain caused by an injured shoulder — or just want to try something new — there are some simple ways to improve your side-sleeping experience without having to give up sleep entirely. First off, you should know that there isn’t really a “best” way to sleep when you’re recovering from an injury. Everyone’s body responds differently to various exercises and therapies, so trying different things out until you find something that works well for you is always best. However, if you tend to wake up with pain in your shoulder, here are some tips that might help you stay asleep longer.
Sleep Your Way to Healthier Bones
According to the Mayo Clinic, sleeping on your side with the injured shoulder facing downward helps relieve compression on the bones in that area. This decreases the risk of fracture, but it also relieves tension on the muscles surrounding those bones. The result? Less strain on the affected shoulder during the next day’s activities, including exercise and work. So don’t skip out on your workout regimen just yet!
There are other benefits to sleeping on your side instead of your stomach. Sleeping on your stomach puts your spine in a C-shaped alignment, in which the lower end of the spinal column rests directly above the pelvis. In doing so, your body takes extra effort to keep everything straight. If you regularly lie on your stomach, especially after eating, you’ll start experiencing pain in your back and neck. Instead, try sleeping curled into a ball with your head resting on your bent elbow. That way, your spine stays aligned vertically rather than horizontally, reducing stress on your joints and making it easier to fall asleep.
Another benefit to sleeping on your side is that it allows you to stretch out your legs and avoid putting unnecessary weight on your bad shoulder. Simply roll onto your good side and prop your feet up against the bedside table. A small footstool or pile of pillows can also help stabilize your ankles.
Sleeping Position 101
When you’re considering how to sleep on your side without hurting your shoulder, it’s helpful to understand a few basic terms. For example, a lateral rotation occurs when your torso turns clockwise 90 degrees from its original orientation. Rotation refers to turning in either direction, but it is usually associated with twisting or rolling movements. Lateral rotation is considered a movement disorder, and it affects both sides equally [sources: DeGroat, Miller].
If you’re not used to sleeping on your side, it can feel strange first. But once you’ve mastered the technique, you may find that it doesn’t bother you anymore. There are many variations of sleeping positions, but generally, you want to ensure that your head remains level and low enough that it doesn’t need support from the floor. Also, consider using a wedge under your knees to keep them higher than your hips, which will encourage you to curl up tighter. And remember, a rolled blanket can serve as a makeshift pillow. Finally, if you prefer to sleep flat on your back, consider placing a thin pillow between your knees. This will prevent your hips from dropping too far below your chest, which could cause pain later on.
Now that you’ve got the basics down, check out the following pages for more great ideas on how to sleep on your side.
Sleepyheads say they get more sleep when lying on their backs, but researchers believe that side-lying improves circulation since blood can flow freely in the limbs. Some studies show that side-lying leads to deeper sleep in healthy adults, but others claim that it can lead to lighter sleep and restless nights in older people. No consensus exists among experts though.
Pain Relief From Sleeping Positions
Most people who suffer from chronic pain like to sleep on their backs; it seems to provide relief in multiple areas. Many people associate sleeping on their backs with relaxation and muscle release, and many sufferers report feeling relaxed and refreshed upon waking. However, sleeping on your back can put additional stress on your spine, leading to back problems and headaches.
In addition, lying on your back puts increased pressure on your internal organs, specifically your lungs, heart, kidneys and bladder. This can increase fluid buildup around your lung tissue, potentially causing shortness of breath or respiratory distress. While it’s true that sleeping on your back can sometimes aid in recovery, it’s not recommended unless absolutely necessary.
While lying on your stomach increases the chances that you’ll develop acid reflux, it can also reduce the amount of blood flowing to your colon, potentially resulting in constipation. Additionally, lying on your stomach prevents your diaphragm from moving to assist with breathing, which can affect oxygen levels in your bloodstream.
Finally, sleeping on your stomach can contribute to hemorrhoids. Hemorrhoids are swollen veins within the rectum that protrude through the anus. They occur in 10 percent of Americans and typically swell during pregnancy or bowel movements. One theory suggests that pressure from the mattress compresses the anal sphincters, which can eventually weaken and become inflamed. Since hemorrhoids are sensitive to changes in body position, it’s recommended that patients elevate their bottom during the night. Doctors recommend that pregnant women elevate the lower extremities during the final trimester to promote proper fetal positioning.
So, consider these tips before deciding to sleep on your side. Remember, everyone’s body reacts differently to certain treatments, so treat every case individually. If you still wake up with pain, consult a doctor to see if your problem lies elsewhere.
People who sleep on their sides with their elbows bent at 90 degrees are called pronated individuals. Pronation is believed to protect the forearm and ulnar nerve, but it also leaves the wrist unprotected. Wrist splints worn while sleeping are commonly used to protect the wrists of pronators.
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