A stiff of frozen shoulder joint isn’t just painful during the day when you reach at odd angles for items. During the evening and at night when you’re trying to get to sleep, a frozen shoulder can spark pain that really interferes with your rest.
Lack of sleep itself comes with a range of health problems, so the last thing you want to do is add sleep deprivation on top of your frozen shoulder complaint!
Thankfully, there are some simple tips that can ease pain and help you get to sleep. But first, let’s talk about what a frozen shoulder really is.
What is a Frozen Shoulder?
A frozen shoulder is simply when your shoulder joint is immobilized – frozen into place! The medical name for this condition is “adhesive capsulitis” and it’s actually quite common. The connective tissue around the joint thickens and tightens, limiting mobility. When you have this condition, your shoulder will be immobile, meaning you cannot move it in certain directions or motions – or even at all.
This stiffness of the shoulder often comes on gradually rather than all at once. The pain radiates from the shoulder like a dull ache, but it doesn’t necessarily hurt to touch.
As for what causes a frozen shoulder, there are a variety of options. You are more likely to develop frozen shoulder in your non-dominant arm (if you are right-handed, then this means your left arm) and have a higher risk if you’ve recently injured your shoulder or had surgery on it.
Researchers have also identified several systemic diseases as risk factors, including diabetes (both type 1 and type 2), lung disease, heart disease, autoimmune diseases, and many connective tissue diseases.
How to Tell If You Have a Frozen Shoulder
If your shoulder feels stiff and hurts, you shouldn’t automatically assume that you have frozen shoulder. Joint pain and stiffness – in the shoulder and other areas – is a symptom of numerous conditions.
The best thing to do is talk to your doctor or medical health professional. Getting a diagnosis is important. If you use the tips below for your shoulder pain but it tuns out you don’t have frozen shoulder, you can accidentally cause even more damage!
Typically, your doctor will assess:
- How much mobility you’ve lost in the shoulder,
- How much pain you’re in,
- Any physical signs around the shoulder.
As well as a physical check-up, the doctor will also need to ask about your medical history. This is to look for risk factors listed above and find out how the shoulder symptoms developed. The doctor will need to eliminate other shoulder conditions before confirming a frozen shoulder diagnosis.
With your frozen shoulder diagnosed, you can ask your doctor for treatment and advice. While your frozen shoulder heals, here are some great tips (and important sleeping positions) to help in the meantime.
Best Sleeping Position for a Frozen Shoulder
The best sleeping position for a frozen shoulder is one that keeps your spine aligned and your shoulder supported – you shouldn’t put any pressure on the shoulder, so definitely do not sleep directly on the arm that’s immobile.
Back position – sleeping on your back keeps your spine aligned and supports your shoulder from behind. This keeps the shoulder joint in a neutral position, reducing pain and preventing further injury. Ideally, your mattress should be medium firm to support your spine. A good pillow that supports your neck in this position is also a good idea.
Side position – sleeping on your side with your damaged shoulder pointing upward is also good. This position prevents any pressure on your shoulder whatsoever. With your arm along your side, it’s also in a neutral position. However, if your mattress is too firm then your hip and healthy shoulder won’t sink low enough. This is bad for your spine and could actually worsen any shoulder/back pain you experience.
TLDR; sleeping on your back is best, but if you have a supportive mattress for side sleeping then this is also a good position with your healthy shoulder against the mattress.
5 Tips to Sleep with a Frozen Shoulder
Besides choosing the right sleeping position and ensuring your mattress and pillow are supportive, there are 5 more tips we have for you to reduce the pain.
Tip 1 – Painkillers
If you are in pain, then taking a sensible painkiller is a good idea. You should really talk to your doctor when you are diagnosed to find out what painkillers are most appropriate. As frozen shoulder can last for quite a while as the condition develops, taking painkillers regularly may not be a long-term solution for you.
Nonetheless, if you’re really struggling to get to sleep one night, it could be a solution.
Your doctor may recommend an anti-inflammatory painkiller that will reduce the pain and hopefully reduce some of the inflammation in your shoulder joint. These painkillers include:
- Ibuprofen (Advil),
- Naproxen (Aleve).
As the pain from a frozen shoulder is relatively mild, these widely accessible painkillers are enough to treat the symptom.
Tip 2 – Heat Pads
Applying heat to your shoulder can soothe the pain and also relax the muscles and joint. With your shoulder stiff and unmoving during the day, the muscles surrounding the area can also cramp up. Applying heat will relax everything and hopefully reduce the pain too.
The key is to use a heat pad or heat source that’s suitable for sleep. Ideally, this is a heat pad that has a timer so it can switch off automatically once you’re fast asleep. You can also use a warm towel or microwave wheat bag that will naturally cool overnight.
Don’t use an electric blanket or any other heating device that doesn’t automatically shut off. This could cause burns or become a fire hazard overnight.
Tip 3 – Anti-Inflammatory Diet
Frozen shoulder doesn’t pop up overnight and fade in 24 hours, it develops over a period of time. If you’re looking for a natural way to reduce the pain over the long-term, you may consider trying a diet that’s rich in anti-inflammatory foods.
Eating plenty of fruit and veg, balanced with carbohydrates and dairy elements, will help keep you in tip-top shape.
While the scientific evidence is lacking for some of these specific anti-inflammatory ingredients, here’s what many people resort to:
- Green leafy vegetables,
- Nuts and fish – sources of healthy fats to lubricate your joints,
- Fruits include blueberries and oranges.
Using fresh or powdered turmeric, ginger, fruits, and nuts can create a great smoothie to try in the mornings. Ginger tea is also a pleasant beverage to sip in the evenings to help lower inflammation and pain when you go to bed.
Tip 4 – Gentle Stretches
Stretching your shoulder – or perhaps “passive moving” is a better term – can help to ease the pain and inflammation over time. If your frozen shoulder is persisting, your doctor should offer you physical therapy.
If, for whatever reason, you need to take the exercises into your own hands for some home practice, this video will really help you:
As Dr Jo explains, passive movements and gentle movements can help to loosen up your shoulder and relieve some of the inflammation trapped in there. Some gentle stretches like these every day can help to treat your frozen shoulder until it’s back to normal.
If doing these stretches before bed isn’t working for you, try doing them in the morning instead. Find what works best for you.
Tip 5 – Meditation
If all else fails, you can try a meditation to reduce the pain. Visualizing the pain melting away may be beneficial for some people. For other people, meditation and using “the power of the mind” doesn’t help much.
In some ways, meditation can be a bit like a placebo. It will work if you believe it will work.
You can find plenty of free guided meditations on YouTube, to guide you towards a state where the pain from your shoulder doesn’t bother you.
Another reason we are advocates of meditation for frozen shoulder, is because it is great for falling asleep. One of the key reasons your shoulder hurts more as you are trying to get to sleep is because your mind doesn’t have any of the distractions you usually have during the day.
A meditation can be a distraction – something to focus on besides the pain. You could even use an audiobook or your favorite playlist to listen to as you go to sleep, to keep your mind off your shoulder.
What is a frozen shoulder?
A frozen shoulder occurs when the connective tissue hardens in the shoulder joint. Symptoms include immobility of the shoulder and dull pain that slowly grows in intensity.
Why does a frozen shoulder hurt more at night?
Without distractions, many things seem worse at night – this includes physical pain as well as worries and stress. After a long day, your shoulder will naturally be more inflamed too, which causes pain in and around the joint. At night, our circulation slows which can enhance inflammation even more.
If you continue to sleep poorly due to frozen shoulder pain, sleep deprivation can lead to reduced levels of melatonin which worsens sleeping habits and can make the pain feel worse.
How can I fix a frozen shoulder?
The key to fixing a frozen shoulder is physical therapy, e.g., correctly stretching and working the shoulder muscles and joints to restore motion and reduce pain. This won’t happen overnight, however, so your doctor may prescribe anti-inflammatory painkillers too, such as ibuprofen or aspirin.
Harvard has some recommended stretches you can start with.
How should I sleep on a frozen shoulder?
Sleep with your spine supported and no pressure on your frozen shoulder. This means sleeping flat on your back or on your side with the healthy shoulder against the mattress. You may also want to double up pillows or buy new ones for more neck support.
What can I do to sleep on a frozen shoulder?
If you don’t want to take painkillers before bed and our sleeping position tips aren’t working, then you can try sleeping with a body pillow or applying heat pads. More long-term tricks include changing your diet, daily stretches, and even meditation to take your mind off the pain.