How to Sleep After Shoulder Surgery

Two Parts:Managing Shoulder Pain Before BedtimeReducing Shoulder Pain While in Bed

Shoulder surgeries are major medical procedures that typically lead to pain, swelling and significantly reduced mobility while the body heals over the course of a few months.[1] Regardless of the type of shoulder operation — rotator cuff surgery, labrum repairs or arthroscopic procedures — it's very difficult to get comfortable at night and get a good sleep during the recovery stage. However, there are some guidelines and tips that will allow your to sleep more comfortably after shoulder surgery.

Part 1
Managing Shoulder Pain Before Bedtime

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    Apply ice packs before bedtime. Managing your shoulder pain or soreness before going to bed makes it easier to fall asleep and stay asleep, which is important for your body's healing process to work at top efficiency. Applying an ice pack to your sore shoulder about 30 minutes prior to going to bed can reduce inflammation, numb the pain and provide temporary relief, which are all important factors in falling asleep soundly.[2]
    • Don't apply anything cold to your sore shoulder without wrapping it in a thin cloth or towel in order to prevent frostbite or irritation.
    • Keep the crushed ice or ice cubes on your shoulder for about 15 minutes or until the area is numb and you can't feel the pain as much.
    • If you don't have any ice, use a bag of frozen veggies or fruit from your freezer.
    • The benefits of cold therapy can last between 15 to 60 minutes, which is usually enough time to allow you to fall asleep.
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    Take your medication as recommended. Another important aspect of managing your post-operative shoulder pain before bedtime is taking your over-the-counter or prescription medication as recommended by your surgeon or family doctor.[3] Regardless if it's a painkiller or anti-inflammatory, take the recommended dosage about 30 minutes before going to bed, as that should be enough time for you to feel the benefits and get comfortable in bed.
    • Take your medication with a little food before going to bed in order to avoid stomach irritation. Some fruit, toast, cereal or yogurt are all good options.
    • Never take medication with alcoholic beverages, such as beer, wine or liquors, because of the increased risk of a toxic reaction in your body. Instead, use water or juice, but not grapefruit juice. Grapefruit juice interacts with many different medications and it can significantly increase the level of medication in your system, which may be fatal.[4]
    • Most patients undergoing shoulder surgery require strong prescription narcotics for at least of few days and sometimes as long as 2 weeks.[5]
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    Wear a sling during the day. After your shoulder surgery, your surgeon or family doctor will recommend and likely give you an arm sling to wear during the day for a few weeks. Arm slings support the shoulder and combat the pulling effects of gravity, which aggravates post-operative shoulder pain.[6] Wearing your arm sling during waking hours will reduce the amount of swelling and soreness in your shoulder at the end of the day, making it easier to fall asleep at night.
    • Wear the strap of the arm sling around your neck in the most comfortable position for your sore shoulder.
    • The arm sling can be removed for short periods of time if necessary, as long as your arm is well supported. Make sure to lie on your back when removing the sling.
    • You may need to go a few days or so without a shower if your surgeon insists on leaving your sling on the entire time. Or, keep an extra sling on hand that you can wear while you are in the shower, then put the dry one on after you are dry.[7]
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    Don't overdo it during the day. Taking it easier during the day while your shoulder recovers is also helpful in preventing excessive soreness at night prior to going to bed.[8] Wearing a sling makes it difficult to move your shoulder too much, but avoid activities that can jar your shoulder such as jogging, working out on a stair climber and rough housing with friends. Focusing on really protecting your shoulder for at least a few months if not a few months — depending on the type of surgery you've had.
    • Walking during the day and early evening is good for your overall health and blood circulation, but take it slow and easier.
    • Remember that with a sling on, your balance will be affected, so be careful of falls and accidents which can further inflame your shoulder and make it more difficult to sleep.

Part 2
Reducing Shoulder Pain While in Bed

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    Wear a sling while in bed. In addition to wearing your sling during the day, consider also wearing it at night, at least for a few weeks. Keeping your arm in a sling while in bed can help your shoulder remain stable while sleeping. [9] With an arm sling snugly holding your shoulder in place and supporting it, you won’t have to worry about your arm moving and creating pain around while you're asleep.
    • Even when wearing an arm sling in bed, don't sleep on your sore shoulder because the compression can trigger pain and inflammation, which could wake you up.
    • Wear a thin t-shirt under the arm sling while in bed so the skin around your neck and upper body doesn't get irritated.
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    Sleep in a reclined position. The best position for most people with shoulder surgeries to sleep in is in a reclined position because it puts less strain on the shoulder joint and surrounding soft tissues.[10] To get into a reclined position while in bed, bolster your lower back and mid back with a few pillows. Alternatively, try sleeping in a reclining chair (Lay-Z-Boy style) if you have one — it might be more comfortable than propping yourself up in bed with pillows.
    • Avoid lying flat on your back as that position is often the most irritating to post-operative shoulders.[11]
    • As your shoulder soreness / stiffness subsides with time, you can slowly lower yourself into a flatter (more horizontal) position gradually if it feels comfortable during the night.
    • In terms of time frame, you'll most likely need to sleep in a semi-reclined position for 6 weeks or more depending on the type of surgery you had.
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    Prop your injured arm up. While you're in bed and in a reclined position, prop up your injured arm with a medium-sized pillow placed under your elbow and hand — you can do this with or without a sling on. Doing so puts your shoulder in a position that encourages good blood flow to the joint and surrounding muscles, which is important for healing.[12] Make sure to keep your elbow bent and the pillow snug underneath your armpit.
    • Alternatives to pillows include cushions and rolled up blankets or towels. As long as it comfortably elevates your lower arm and isn't too slippery, it'll work fine.
    • Elevating the lower arm and causing some external rotation at the shoulder while in bed is particularly comforting for rotator cuff and labrum surgeries.
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    Build a pillow fort or barrier. While sleeping in your bed after shoulder surgery, even if in a reclined position, it’s important to not accidentally roll over onto your injured shoulder and damage it further.[13] Thus, stack some pillows beside and/or behind your injured side to prevent rolling onto it while sleeping. Softer pillows typically work better than firmer pillows as a barrier because your arm will sink into them instead of rolling off of them.
    • It’s a good idea to line both sides of your body with softer pillows to keep you from rolling over either way and jolting your post-operative shoulder.
    • Don't use pillows covered in satin or silk because they tend to be too slippery as a support and barrier.
    • As an alternative, move your bed against a wall and sleep with your sore shoulder wedged gently against it in order to prevent rolling over.


  • Taking a warm bath before going to bed might help you relax, although be careful not to get your arm sling wet. Consider taking it off for a few minutes while you bathe.
  • Depending on the severity of your shoulder injury and the type of surgical procedure, it might take a few weeks to get a good night’s sleep. As such, ask your doctor about sleep medication.
  • Check with your surgeon for specific advice while sleeping based on the exact nature of your injury and procedure.

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Categories: Pain Management and Recovery