I spend a significant portion of my day in front of a computer screen, staring intensely at it while frantically pressing keys in a hunched over position. Indeed, like so many people I have a sedentary job where I have to sit for many hours each day.
And no matter how hard I try to maintain an upright sitting posture, I always seem to end up in a slouched position without realizing it. It seems I’ve gotten so used to this posture, I even have tense shoulders while sleeping! It seems my shoulders are always up to something, literally.
You might be surprised to hear that your posture during the day, such as while sitting, can affect your posture while sleeping. Unfortunately, bad posture puts undue stress on your neck which can also spread to your shoulders and back.
It is very easy to develop bad posture from other activities besides sitting as well. For example, if you tend to carry heavy bags a long time everyday, especially if one of the straps causes you to elevate one shoulder higher than the other to prevent it from sliding, that can also cause tight and achy shoulders. And activities that you do in the day can translate to shoulder tension at night.
Why Are My Shoulders Always Acting Up While Sleeping?
If you notice that you are scrunching your shoulders while sleeping, or if you have tense shoulders while sleeping, you are not alone. Tight, stiff shoulders torment nearly all people today, because so many of us spend too much time slumped in front of a desk or behind a steering wheel.
Poor posture causes our chest to tighten, our thoracic spine to round forward, and our shoulders to compress, eventually resulting in shoulder tightness or even pain.
The effects of poor posture are far-reaching; they can affect even your emotional well-being and cause sleepless nights. Taking time to determine whether poor sleeping position is affecting you is a necessary step to addressing these issues. By adjusting your sleep position, you can reduce stress on your shoulders and prevent them from tensing up.
Common Causes of Shoulder Pain While Sleeping
Though poor posture is the biggest culprit, there are other factors that can cause tight shoulders; overusing the shoulder muscles, muscle tension, or even stress can contribute to tense shoulders. In this section, we will cover the most common causes of tense shoulders that can result in shoulder pain while sleeping.
Anxiety. Stress. Self-esteem. These factors have a correlation to neck and shoulder pain, and it puts you in a vicious cycle. Stress can aggravate or lead to tight shoulders in the first place, which only stresses you out more. Keep in mind that it is not stress itself that causes these issues, but rather how stress causes behavioral changes which affects how we position our body. People who are anxious, stressed, or have low self-esteem tend to also suffer from bad posture which can strain the shoulders.
We’ve already mentioned this, but it bears repeating again. Posture is one of the largest contributors to shoulder tightness and pain. People with desk jobs often experience shoulder tension. They sit in a slouched position and perform repetitive actions (moving the mouse, typing) for a long time and this is a surefire way to suffer from stiff back, neck, and shoulders. Once again, it is a vicious cycle – as tension and pain increases, our posture deteriorates further.
How we move our body on a daily basis can contribute to shoulder pain. Similar to posture, consider how you walk, carry, lift, and particularly how you drive. If you have a long commute, consider adjusting your seat so that you are sitting upright. Check that the seat is positioned so that the wheel is at a comfortable height and distance. You don’t want to drive in the same slouched posture as you would sit in front of a computer.
In order to improve posture, you will need to perform corrective exercises, improve core strength, and increase flexibility. Unfortunately, performing these training exercises incorrectly can worsen shoulder pain. Ironically, you need to have proper posture when performing posture correcting exercises, otherwise they will have no effect, or they may worsen your shoulder condition.
Hunching When Cold
During the cold seasons, shoulder-tension complaints rise and the weather is to blame. It’s not that being cold causes the shoulder to become tight, but rather how we naturally hunch our shoulders as a response to being cold. Holding this position for a long period of time will cause the shoulders to tense up.
Now that you know some of the common causes of tense shoulders and shoulder pain while sleeping, here are some things you should keep in mind to protect yourself.
Improve Your Posture During the Day
If you want to have better posture while sleeping, you should first work on improving your daytime posture since this contributes to pains and aches that forces you into a specific posture. But what does “good” posture feel like? Here’s how you can tell. By leaning against a wall multiple times throughout the day, you can measure how well you are doing.
Place your back against the wall. If you have poor posture, then your shoulder blades may not reach the wall. Retract your shoulders down and back and stick your chest out, until you feel your shoulder blades touching the wall. Next, straighten your neck by touching the back of your head against the wall while tucking your chin in slightly.
Evenly distribute your weight between both legs. Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart, and do not lean on one leg more than the other. Stand sideways in front of a mirror and mimic the wall pose. Keep your shoulders and neck upright, squeeze your abdominal muscles, and keep your shoulders down and pulled back.
See a physical therapist. It can be difficult to learn proper posture even with pictures, videos, and informative text. If you are struggling to fix your posture, then you should seek the help of a physical therapist, who can show you what good posture is as well as core strengthening exercises that will protect your body.
People who are stressed out or anxious tend to have poor body posture which can cause tightness and muscle pain. Reducing stress will not directly fix your tight shoulders, but it will lead to behavioral changes that can be beneficial.
Be aware of how you respond physically to situations. Whenever you are nervous or anxious, do you find yourself hiking up your shoulders? When you are cold, do your shoulders immediately hike up? And when you are sleeping in bed after a stressful day, are your shoulders still elevated?
It is important to remind yourself as you are feeling more and more stressed out to take a break and relax. Take note of your posture and try to practice good posture. People with upright posture tend to handle stress better and feel better overall, in addition to looking more confident.
Improve Core and Shoulder Strength
Bad posture can cause your muscles to weaken, and a great way to improve posture is to strengthen your core and upper body, including your shoulders and back muscles. Your shoulders, specifically, may see improvements by doing rotator cuff exercises. The small muscles in your shoulders that keep the ball-and-socket joint in place should be strong to keep it stabilized.
To address shoulder tension while sleeping, shoulder stretches can improve flexibility and reduce tightness in the short-term. Out of all the joints in the body, the shoulder is the most mobile which means people have twisted their shoulders in all sorts of unusual directions, causing injuries. If your shoulders are feeling stiff, perhaps some stretches can fix that. If you feel pain, you may have injured it and should see a doctor.
Check out this article for some examples of stretches you can do to reduce shoulder tension as well as how to properly perform them.
Assess Your Sleep Posture
How you position your body when you sleep at night can play a major role in whether you experience shoulder tightness or pain. The first step is to sleep in a position that maintains a neutral spine alignment. In addition to shoulder issues, if you also suffer from heartburn, headaches, sleep apnea, back pain, or fatigue, then your sleep posture may be worsening these issues. Here’s what you need to fix.
A bad mattress can affect your entire sleep posture, causing you stiffness in the head, neck, back, and shoulders. Stiff mattresses will not contour to the shape of your body and will lead to aching muscles. A mattress that is too soft will not be able to support your shoulders and back, affecting the alignment of your spine. A memory foam mattress may provide the stability and comfort you need for a good night’s rest, but it is not needed.
A good mattress should contour slightly around the shape of your body in whatever position you lie yet still provide adequate support. If you are a back sleeper, sleep with a pillow beneath your knees to keep the spine in neutral alignment and reduce lumbar pain. Side sleepers should not allow their raised leg (opposite to the side being rested on) to twist and rest on the mattress. Instead, they should sleep with a pillow between their legs around the knees to maintain neutral spine alignment.
Pillows can be used to help achieve proper sleeping posture, but over-stuffing them or using too many can lead to shoulder and back pain as well. Pillows are made from various materials such as foam, feathers, fiberfill and memory foam. You can also buy pillows that are specifically designed to be used beneath your knees, as back support, or for general head support. Sleeping without a pillow causes the spine to be out of alignment, and sleeping on top of multiple pillows can cause cervical spine to be tilted too high.
There are three types of sleeping positions: sleeping on the back, sleeping on the side, and sleeping on the stomach. Out of these positions, sleeping on the stomach is the most detrimental because it puts a lot of pressure on the neck and does not maintain the spine in a neutral position.
Back sleepers may experience sleep apnea when their tongue falls back and reduces their airflow, causing excessive snoring. Side sleeping can reduce snoring but puts undue stress on the shoulders. Many side sleepers round their shoulders forward or raise them up to disperse the pressure elsewhere, but this can cause them to get tight.
If you feel like your shoulders are always up and tensed up and you have not suffered any injuries, then you can try some self-treatment by adjusting how you sleep. Muscle tightness is nothing to be worried about, but shoulder pain can be a sign of something serious. If the tightness is becoming painful, visit your doctor or physical therapist to determine the cause and how to treat it.