December 14, 2021

How To Relieve Rotator Cuff Pain at Night

3 tips to help you sleep easier

man with shoulder pain in bedroom

Beware the night. If you’ve injured or torn a rotator cuff muscle, that warning probably sends a familiar shiver down your spine.

Advertisement

Cleveland Clinic is a non-profit academic medical center. Advertising on our site helps support our mission. We do not endorse non-Cleveland Clinic products or services. Policy

Shoulder injuries that barely register pain during the day can turn absolutely monstrous when the moon and stars shine above. It’s a terrifying reality that can keep you up at night. (Insert werewolf howl here.)

It doesn’t have to be such a scary situation, though — especially if you follow these tips from physical therapist Kelly Kinsey, MSPT, AT.

What is a rotator cuff tear?

Four muscles and a network of tendons reside in your rotator cuff. Together, they help you lift and move your arms. You’re not doing something as simple as stacking cans on a pantry shelf without your rotator cuff doing its thing.

A rotator cuff tear happens when a tendon connecting your shoulder muscle to your skeletal frame pulls away from your bone. Tears can be partial (leaving some connection) or a complete detachment.

Most often, tears occur over time with the repetitive movement that comes with day-to-day life. An accident, such as a fall, also can cause an injury.

Signs of a rotator cuff tear include:

  • Difficulty raising your arm. (Plus, it usually hurts.)
  • Popping or clicking sounds in your shoulder.
  • Overall weakness in your shoulder.
  • Shoulder pain that worsens at night.

Why is the pain worse at night?

That’s a little bit of a mystery. Healthcare professionals have some ideas why it hurts more at night — primarily related to blood flow and muscle tension — but there’s really no definitive reason, says Kinsey.

“Your body is quieter at night,” says Kinsey, “so you’re more likely to hear the thing in your body screaming the loudest.”

Advertisement

3 tips to relieve rotator cuff pain

Various exercises and stretches can help you restore flexibility and reduce pain in an injured rotator cuff and shoulder — but it takes time, cautions Kinsey.

In the meantime, here are some ways to make it hurt less … particularly at night.

Adjust your sleeping position

Peacefully lying down in bed might seem like a relatively mild physical act, but it’s enough to send pain levels shooting through the roof if you’re dealing with a torn rotator cuff. The reason? Gravity.

“Oftentimes, when people lie down, your position and gravity increases the pulling and tugging on the tear,” says Kinsey. “It might not seem like much, but you’ll feel it.”

The solution? Props.

If you sleep on your back, slip a pillow or folded blanket beneath your arm to keep your elbow from dropping down to the bed. That slight dip is enough to put strain on your shoulder. “Try to support your arm and lift it up so it’s sitting midline with your body,” says Kinsey.

Are you a side sleeper? If so, Kinsey recommends sleeping with your injured shoulder up. Then, build a “pillow wall” in front of you and rest your arm on that puffy shelf. (The wall should be the height of your body.)

In each case, the pillows place your aching shoulder in a more neutral position that reduces tension on the joint. “That extra support for your shoulder blade and arm is one of the best ways to find relief,” says Kinsey.

Advertisement

And if you sleep on your stomach … well, stop it. The position typically puts your arm and shoulder in an awkward position that can dial up the pain.

Hot or cold therapy

Your aching rotator cuff might respond to cold therapy. Of course, it may also feel better with heat. “We have people experiment with them both to see which helps more,” says Kinsey. “This isn’t a one-size-fits-all situation.”

Ice or cold therapy often works better on an injury, or acute tear. Warmth tends to soothe chronic pain related to long-term wear by increasing blood flow to the area to help with healing.

Pain relievers

Over-the-counter pain relievers such as Tylenol® — or Advil® and other NSAIDs (nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs) — can help manage swelling and ease pain. For relief while sleeping, take the medication about an hour before bedtime.

As always, it’s best to check with your doctor before taking medications. You also want to avoid making NSAIDs a daily habit.

Related Articles

Woman a gym has shoulder pain
January 9, 2022
Stretches and Exercises for Rotator Cuff Tears

Improve your shoulder’s range of motion before moving to strengthening workouts

man with rotator cuff injury
December 29, 2020
How Can I Deal With Rotator Cuff Injuries If I’m Over 45?

The short answer from an orthopaedic sports medicine surgeon

A caregiver measuring a woman's arm to assess her health and body measurements.
December 2, 2018
When Do Rotator Cuff Shoulder Injuries Absolutely Call for Surgery?

The Short Answer from an orthopedic surgeon

Top view of person sitting in bathtub with cold water and lots of ice.
November 26, 2023
Brrr! What To Know About Cold Plunges

An ice bath can ease sore muscles and decrease inflammation after a workout

Person working on computer with hurting wrist.
November 23, 2023
11 Exercises and Stretches for Wrist Pain

Wrist flexor and extensor stretches are the best stretches for wrist pain

Person rubbing painful wrists and hands on lap.
November 16, 2023
16 Hand and Wrist Exercises To Help Ease Arthritis Pain

Simple exercises like tendon glides and finger lifts can have a big impact

Active elderly couple exiting tennis court
November 13, 2023
How Long Does a Hip or Knee Replacement Last?

They can last 10 to 15 years, but factors like age and activity level can impact their longevity

x ray of knee joint showing sound waves
October 29, 2023
Cracking Joints: Why Your Joints Pop and When You Need To Worry

It’s a normal, common occurrence, but popping with pain or swelling may be a sign of an injury

Trending Topics

White bowls full of pumpkin seeds, dark chocolate and various kinds of nuts
25 Magnesium-Rich Foods You Should Be Eating

A healthy diet can easily meet your body’s important demands for magnesium

Woman feeling for heart rate in neck on run outside, smartwatch and earbuds
Heart Rate Zones Explained

A super high heart rate means you’re burning more than fat

Spoonful of farro salad with tomato
What To Eat If You’ve Been Diagnosed With Prediabetes

Type 2 diabetes isn’t inevitable with these dietary changes

Ad