Pillow for Shoulder Pain
Shoulder pain is a common problem that may develop due to a serious injury, a traumatic event (e.g., car accident), wear and tear of connective tissue, or poor posture. For some people, shoulder pain treatment involves oral or topical pain relievers, pain management injections, physical therapy, or surgery. However, mild to moderate shoulder pain may be alleviated by replacing pillows that provide minimal upper-body support.
Many pillows are specifically designed to support the head, neck, spine, and shoulders while people are asleep. Improving sleep posture with a well-designed pillow helps reduce pain and relieves pressure on the upper body. This guide discusses potential causes and treatments for shoulder pain as well as pillow options to consider for chronic shoulder discomfort.
What Causes Shoulder Pain?
Shoulder pain is a frustrating issue that may become debilitating for some people. About 70% of adults experience shoulder pain at any time point and a moderate number of cases require medical treatment. According to pain management specialists, shoulder pain may develop due to a wide range of conditions and injuries that include:
Cartilage or tendon damage
Injured or torn rotator cuff
Separated or dislocated shoulder
Septic arthritis (infectious arthritis)
Tendonitis (inflammation of a tendon)
Bursitis (inflammation of fluid-filled sacs in the joints)
If shoulder pain is accompanied by additional symptoms such as tightness in the chest or shortness of breath, emergency medical services should be contacted immediately by calling 911. Sudden sharp pain, warmth in the shoulder region, swelling, or the loss of movement may also indicate a medical emergency. It is important to remember that any form of severe shoulder pain with a rapid onset should be evaluated by a physician.
In addition to identifying the potential cause, a healthcare professional can recommend an appropriate form of treatment. Beneficial approaches include:
Resting the shoulder until the pain subsides
Taking oral non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs)
Receiving injections for pain (e.g., cortisone shots)
Working with a physical therapist
Understanding the cause of shoulder pain helps determine what type of treatment method may work best. In some cases, the underlying issue is poor sleep posture due to pillows that don’t provide proper support. Replacing pillows may help reduce pain and promote better sleep.
Shoulder Pain and Sleep
Sleep disturbances and experiencing discomfort while in bed are common problems for people with persistent shoulder pain. Some individuals struggle to sleep comfortably regardless of the sleeping position they choose, and others may feel tingling, numbness, or painful spasms in the upper body region. Although any of the previously listed conditions may contribute to sleep-related shoulder pain, the following three issues are typically observed in people who are dealing with ongoing shoulder problems:
- A torn or injured rotator cuff - Damage to the group of muscles that stabilize, cushion, and support the shoulder joint.
- Bursitis - Inflammation of fluid-filled sacs, called bursae, that provide protective cushioning for various joints in the body, including the shoulders.
- Biceps tendonitis - Irritation, inflammation, or damage of the upper biceps tendon that may cause pain or tenderness in the front of the shoulder. The pain typically worsens when the arms are lifted.
If any of these underlying conditions are suspected, a healthcare professional may recommend the use of NSAIDs (e.g., ibuprofen, aspirin), a compression sleeve, ice and heat treatment, or further evaluation from a physical therapist. Replacing a current pillow with one that is specifically designed to improve head, neck, and shoulder support is another beneficial option that may provide pain relief.
Signs That It’s Time for a New Pillow
One of the most common signs that it is time to replace a pillow is experiencing neck and shoulder pain, especially after waking up. This typically happens when a pillow becomes too flat and no longer keeps the neck in proper alignment with the spine. However, there are several additional signs to look for when trying to decide whether it's the right time for a new pillow.
- The pillow has noticeable lumps - A key sign of wear and tear is a lumpy pillow. Over time, the material inside of pillows begins to accumulate moisture, dirt, body oil, and other particles that lead to the formation of uncomfortable lumps. A lumpy pillow is not only difficult to sleep on, but also does not provide adequate support.
- Odors or stains on a pillow - Even if pillows are washed regularly, they gradually retain moisture, oil, and sweat. An unpleasant smell may disrupt sleep or cause an individual to frequently shift positions to try to avoid the smell. This is another sign that the pillow needs to be replaced.
- The pillow is flat enough to fold - If a pillow is folded and it remains in that position or needs to constantly be fluffed, this is an indication that the pillow is worn. A supportive pillow returns to its original shape after it is folded or fluffed. If this is not the case, a new pillow should be purchased.
Pillows are similar to mattresses, as they both wear down over time with repeated use. Furthermore, an old pillow may feel comfortable, but as the support from a worn pillow gradually deteriorates, shoulder pain and sleep problems may develop.
How to Choose an Appropriate Pillow for Shoulder Pain
Searching for a new pillow that alleviates shoulder pain may seem straightforward, but there are important factors to consider based on a person’s regular sleep position, body type, preferences regarding pillow thickness and firmness, and the severity of shoulder pain. In addition, it is beneficial to search online for consumer reports and medical reviews of the best pillows for shoulder pain before making a purchase, or speak with a professional (e.g., physical therapist) who can make useful recommendations, including orthopedic pillows.
Sales representatives may not always be experts at understanding the specific factors that ensure proper support or pain relief. Furthermore, purchasing the wrong type of pillow may lead to more pain or tissue damage. Every pillow manufacturer will guarantee that their pillow reduces shoulder pain, provides comfort all night long, and supports restful sleep regardless of a person’s preferences or physical needs. However, the average pillow is not necessarily designed to specifically alleviate or target shoulder pain. A pillow must meet certain specifications.
The following key specifications can help guide the decision process:
- Loft - Pillow loft refers to thickness, and it typically affects how supportive a pillow feels. Side sleepers generally require medium to high loft to ensure proper spinal alignment. This helps reduce pressure around the neck, shoulders, chest, back, and hips. Back and stomach sleepers usually prefer low loft because it keeps the head in line with the rest of the body and decreases the incidence of neck and shoulder pain while sleeping in these positions.
The loss of pillow loft occurs gradually after a pillow is compressed for prolonged periods of time (e.g., every night), and this causes it to flatten. A flat, worn pillow can eventually cause neck and shoulder pain, especially for people who sleep on their side.
- Support - A supportive pillow keeps the head upright and cradles the neck, while a flat or worn pillow will sink beneath the weight of the head. Sometimes sleepers become accustomed to flat pillows, but most people with persistent shoulder pain need a pillow that supports the head and provides cushion for the neck and shoulders.
- Level of firmness - The ideal firmness level of a pillow for any sleeper typically depends on personal preference. Some sleepers may feel more comfortable using a soft, plush pillow, while others may prefer to sleep on a firm pillow that feels more supportive. As adequate support is crucial for shoulder pain relief, sleepers who are struggling with shoulder issues usually need to consider using a firmer pillow. However, excessive firmness may also lead to body aches and stiffness.
- Shape - Specialty pillows (e.g., orthopedic cushions) for people who are experiencing neck and shoulder pain may not have the standard rectangular shape of most traditional pillows. They may be contoured or wedge-shaped to keep the head and neck in the correct position, which is an important factor that promotes pain relief and better sleep. A body pillow may also offer added support around the neck and shoulders.
- Quality material - The material that is used to manufacture a pillow helps determine its supportive qualities and expected longevity. Ideal pillow materials include buckwheat hulls, latex foam, and viscoelastic polyurethane foam, also known as memory foam. Polyfoam is an alternative to memory foam that may be more comfortable for some sleepers. It may take anywhere from 2-4 weeks to become accustomed to new pillow material, firmness, support, and loft.
These are some of the most important features to look for when choosing a pillow for shoulder pain. It may also be useful to specifically search for an orthopedic pillow for shoulder pain. Orthopedic pillows support healthy sleep posture by helping the spine remain in alignment throughout the night and reducing the need to frequently reposition the body while asleep or at rest. In addition, this type of pillow supports the head and neck, which can help reduce the risk of joint stiffness and pain. Individuals with frustrating shoulder discomfort that is starting to interrupt daily life should consider purchasing an orthopedic pillow and consulting a professional such as a physical therapist.
Consider Working with a Physical Therapist
People who have chronic shoulder pain may experience relief from physical therapy, unless a serious incident necessitates an emergency procedure such as surgery. This therapeutic approach focuses on reducing pain, promoting healing, and improving the range of motion in the shoulder joint. The pain management plan generally involves learning guided movements, including stretches and strength-training exercises that encourage long-term improvement.
In addition to demonstrating therapeutic techniques, a physical therapist can also recommend lifestyle adjustments such as postural changes or appropriate pillows to purchase, if a worn, unsupportive pillow appears to be one of the underlying causes of shoulder pain. Attending sessions regularly is another important part of the treatment regimen, as this allows a therapist to monitor progress and make adjustments when necessary. Therefore, individuals with ongoing shoulder pain should consider speaking with a physical therapist for additional assistance.
If extensive damage due to a serious shoulder injury necessitates surgery, physical therapy is usually an integral part of the recovery process. More importantly, working with a physical therapist helps some people experience shorter recovery periods after surgery. Overall, any form of shoulder pain that disrupts daily activities should be evaluated by a healthcare professional such as a physical therapist.
A good pillow supports the head, neck, shoulders, and spine by maintaining proper alignment while a person sleeps. The ideal firmness, loft, and support depend on whether a person sleep on the stomach, back, or side. Side sleepers usually prefer a thicker pillow with a medium to high loft, while stomach and back sleepers typically prefer a low loft, as this allows the head to remain at an even position with the rest of the body. A pillow with low loft also reduces the risk of neck and shoulder pain while sleeping on the back or stomach.
However, certain injuries or medical conditions related to shoulder pain (e.g., torn rotator cuff, bursitis, or tendonitis) may cause a change in sleeping position. For example, a side sleeper who is suffering from shoulder pain might consider sleeping on the back while the shoulder is healing. To ease this transition, it may be helpful to replace an old pillow with one that is more suited for the new sleep position.
For assistance with the pillow selection process, the expert physical therapists at FYZICAL can recommend pillow options, postural adjustments, lifestyle changes, and stretching techniques that can help alleviate your shoulder pain. Following the physical therapy regimen consistently and performing therapeutic exercises regularly can also reduce the risk of experiencing recurring shoulder problems. Call FYZICAL today to learn more about the benefits of an individualized physical therapy program for shoulder pain management.
FYZICAL offers a wide variety of physical therapy services by qualified providers across the U.S. To find a FYZICAL Therapy & Balance Center near you, visit our website at FYZICAL.com. Our highly skilled therapy providers are 100% focused on your optimal health so you can Love Your Life®!
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