Should Your Shoulder Be on the Pillow when Sleeping?

redhead sleeping in a bed with a pillow and white sheets

Cervical neck pain can make life miserable for anyone and this is why choosing the right pillow is so crucial for optimum support of the major parts of the upper body. The truth is everyone has personal preferences in terms of pillow firmness and type.

Depending on the preferred sleeping position, some consumers lie down with their shoulders on the pillow. Others adopt sleep angles that ensure only the neck and the head end up resting on their pillows.

The debate on whether the shoulder should be on the pillow during sleep has been lingering for decades. As somebody interested in getting the most restful and pain-free snooze at night, it is only logical that you’d want to be on the right side.

Should Your Shoulder Be on the Pillow when Sleeping?

A pillow is meant to bridge the gap between the head and the rest of the body for proper spinal alignment during sleep. Hence, the shoulders should not be on the pillow during sleep because it can impede the natural curvature of the spine resulting in sciatica and other forms of discomfort in the morning.

Proper Pillow Positioning For Sleep

Proper pillow positioning can be the difference between a delightful shuteye and a night of tossing and turning coupled with back pain in the morning. This is why you cannot afford to get it wrong even if all the other conditions for good sleep are present.

Here are some factors that can determine the right pillow positioning for blissful nights:

Pillow Type: Several types of pillows are available on the market meaning choosing the right type can be an uphill battle for a lot of consumers. However, wedge pillows stand out from the crowd because they are designed to offer support for not only the neck and head but other areas of the upper body as well.

These pillows provide a sharp incline that ensures that the surface can accommodate the shoulders properly without affecting the natural curvature of the spine. Wedge pillows do not only offer superior sleep but can also provide relief for the symptoms of common health issues such as sleep apnea, acid reflux, and chronic back pain.

However, if you decide to choose normal pillows, the shoulders must stay clear throughout the night.

Back Sleeping: According to health experts, this is the best position for catching some Zs. However, note that the shoulders should always be placed underneath the pillows for not only comfort but proper alignment between the upper and lower bodies as well.

Often, cervical or contour pillows with memory foam filling can be an excellent choice for back sleepers. Do keep that in mind the next time you’re shopping for a new pillow.

Side Sleeping: This is a popular position, with up to 74% of Americans relying on their sides for support to get through the night. Unfortunately, side sleeping can put enormous pressure on the shoulders especially among overweight sleepers and pregnant women.

A thicker pillow positioned such that the shoulders make no contact on the top surface often works best. But, in the absence of a thick pillow, 2 thin pillows can stack up as a good replacement. Remember, left-side sleeping has proven to produce superior results compared to the right.  It can enhance digestion while improving circulation and comfort among pregnant women. Sleeping on the left side can also reduce snoring and other signs of obstructive sleep apnea as well as eliminate acid reflux.

However, do not hesitate to switch to the opposite side or even the back whenever the shoulders on a particular side begin aching.

Stomach Sleeping: This can be a terrible position, according to sleep experts and doctors. However, up to 8 percent of Americans lie down on the front by default. Sleeping without a pillow works best for most tummy sleepers as they tend to suffer neck stiffness and pain in the morning from many types of pillows.

Migraines, numbness, and pain in the shoulders are common complaints tummy sleepers make. If you must choose a pillow, a flat one of medium firmness may be the best option. However, make sure the shoulders stay off the pillow’s surface for optimum results.

Best Sleeping Position For Shoulder Pain

Are you a victim of a serious shoulder sprain or perhaps you’re experiencing pain after lying down incorrectly on the shoulders. Either way, snoozing at night can become tricky as the last thing you want is to aggravate the situation.

The best sleeping position for any level of shoulder pain is the back. This can offer the least amount of pressure to the sore shoulders especially when they’re kept off the pillow. Side sleepers may have to lie down on the opposite side of the pain and switch to the back whenever fatigue sets in, even if resting on the front seems tempting.

Remember, tummy sleeping with shoulder discomfort is a big no-no as it can destabilize the shoulders by moving them out of alignment. This may lead to back stiffness in the morning even if the shoulders gain temporary relief.

Additionally, be prepared to try different variations of backside sleeping including the fetal position until you settle on one that works for you.

How To Sleep Comfortably When your Shoulders Hurt

There are additional ways to gain satisfying sleep even when the shoulder hurts. Here are a few tips to ensure you can get through the night without problems.

1. Choose The Right Pillow 

Choosing the right pillow can be critical for comfort during the night. As stated above, there’s no one-size-fits-all solution when it comes to pillows. Your favorite sleeping position can determine the type of pillow as well as the right firmness to select.

For instance, while firm pillows may be preferred among back sleepers, flatter options can be more suitable for those who lie down on the tummy by default.

Don’t forget to position the pillow in a way that prevents accidental rolling over onto the injured shoulder during sleep.

I always look forward to retiring to bed on my Milemont Memory Foam Cervical Pillow from Amazon after a hard day of work. It has transformed the quality of my sleep by eliminating neck stiffness and shoulder pain since I ordered it 3 months ago. I cannot recommend it highly enough.

2. Workout Regularly 

blonde working out at home

Regular workouts can improve blood, nutrient, and oxygen circulation. In the event of an injury to the shoulders or other parts of the body, healing can become quicker among the physically active compared to those who live sedentary lifestyles.

Are you currently suffering from shoulder stiffness or discomfort? Gentle shoulder stretches can help provide soothing relief as long as you start slow and build up gently.

Besides, any activities that can aggravate the pain in the shoulders should be avoided. For instance, it is advisable to stay away from lifting heavy loads such as pets and young children.

3. Take Over-the-Counter Pain Killers

Pain killers can be essential for anyone suffering from any level of shoulder pain. The good news is that even over-the-counter pain medications such as Advil, Aleve, and Tylenol can provide soothing relief for the discomfort.

These medications typically come with dosage instructions on the packaging so make sure to follow them exactly as directed.

4. No Caffeine

Drinking caffeine at night can exacerbate pain levels and keep you wide awake well past the regular bedtime. Caffeine can block the neurotransmitters that send fatigue signals to the brain, ensuring that sleep is hard to come by.

Many folks only think of coffee when the word caffeine is mentioned but tea, chocolate bars, and soda can contain significant amounts of the popular stimulant. If you must drink coffee, decaffeinated options may be the best.

Have you read the article we wrote on how to actually sleep after drinking excessive coffee? Click the link to discover some smart tactics that provide amazing results.

5. Avoid Alcohol

2 glasses and a bottle of alcohol

Alcohol can mess up sleep routines and make it harder to nod off. This is why you should ditch it when suffering from any injury or pain. And it is no secret that alcohol does not mix well with most pain killers especially those available on a prescription-only basis.

Besides, taking alcoholic beverages can increase the urge to visit the bathroom more frequently, resulting in a never-ending cycle of continuous hydration and emptying the bladder every 30 minutes to an hour.


The shoulders should stay off the pillow during sleep as this can impede the proper alignment of the spine with the upper parts of the body. Going contrary to this can lead to back pain as well as numbness and stiffness in the shoulders, arms, and other body parts.

Sleeping on the back with the pillows below the shoulders can be the best way to avoid pain in the morning. However, side sleepers should regularly switch to the opposite side whenever pillow discomfort is experienced.

Gabriel Smith

Hello, my name is Gabriel and I LOVE to sleep. Okay, you’re right, a lot of people do like sleep. But my passion is actually not sleeping. My interest lies in the “theoretical part”. What to do before bedtime. What a good night’s sleep is. etc. In short, how to sleep well. I hope you share the same interest as me, and enjoy reading everything about sleep.

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