Sleeping Comfort after Shoulder Surgery

Rotator cuff repairs, labral repairs, acromioplasties, and shoulder replacement surgeries are performed on countless patients every day in the United States. Although rehabilitative protocols differ depending on the surgery, there is one common complaint shoulder patients have regardless of the type of surgery. Most patients are not equipped to deal with the pain associated with sleeping. The following is a list of ideas that our patients have compiled over the years that have helped to get them “over the hump” in terms of getting a good night’s rest.

1. You may initially find it easier to sleep in a reclined position rather than lying flat on your back. There are two ways to do this. You can either bolster yourself from behind with pillows, or more preferably, sleep in a reclining “Lazy Boy” type of chair. It is also worth noting that as your sleeping comfort improves, it is worth slowly lowering your body down over time until you are back to a horizontal position. Many patients will have to sleep in a semi-reclined position for up to six weeks or longer following surgery. It is worth your while to plan ahead of time and borrow a recliner if you know that you will be having shoulder surgery.

2. Pharmaceuticals can be extremely helpful after shoulder surgery. What some patients do not realize is that different people react in different ways to different medications. If you are not getting any sleep secondary to pain with your current medication, ask your doctor if there are other options.

breg night pillow for breg neutral wedge

Breg Night Pillow for the Breg Neutral Wedge Sling

3. Many healthcare practitioners who deal with post-surgical shoulder rehab agree that placing a single pillow under the elbow and hand places the shoulder in a position that allows maximal blood flow to the rotator cuff tendons during sleep. The picture above shows such a position. It is even possible to do this while you are wearing your physician-prescribed shoulder sling.

4. Ask your doctor if it is acceptable to spend some time out of your shoulder sling every day. Shoulder slings are a necessary evil: they do indeed protect the shoulder from trauma while the patient is walking and performing daily tasks. The downside of the shoulder sling, however, is that it places the shoulder in an undesirable forward position that does not help with restoring normal mechanics. The longer a shoulder is kept forward in a sling, the harder it is to get the shoulder to rest in a normal position. This is yet another example of “form following function.” As soon as your doctor allows you to stop using your shoulder sling, burn it.

The Breg Night Pillow for their Neutral Wedge (pictured above) will assist with maintaining proper shoulder position and may help you get a better night’s sleep. View this on Amazon. Note that the product listed is strictly the Night Pillow; the brace is not included.


  1. michael wolfman says

    had severe rotator cuff damages…4 reattachments
    in sling and cannot find position to sleep except almost completely upright,,,impossible
    i have been told that i will be in sling for a month

    q – is this just something i have to accept and get thru? what is the usual discomfort time until i can recline

    thank you!

    • says


      It may be a month or two before the sleeping comfort improves, especially with the level of involvement of your surgery. Try propping pillows under the elbow and arm to see if you can find a better position. If you have a reclining chair / lazy-boy that will usually help as well.


  2. Nicholas porter says

    I had labrum surgery for my shoulder three weeks ago but it feels fine sleeping without my brace and walking around my house without it on…. Is it okay that I’m only wearing it when I go out in public?

    • says


      The labral anchors really need a good month to heal in a stable position. Be very careful about taking the sling off in certain situations. I would certainly say that you need to wear it in public and while you sleep. It is probably fine to take it off in the house and when you are sitting quietly etc.., but you of course need to run the idea by your doctor.

      Better to be mildly inconvenienced short term in order to have a stable recovery.

  3. says

    I had 4 reattachments this afternoon. Having pains In lower right ribs in every breath. Is there a reason for this and since the surgery was on my right shoulder can I sleep on my left side and not worry about hurting my shoulder?



    • says


      The rib pain probably has to do with your positioning during the surgery. Keep an eye on it, if it doesn’t go away or if it gets worse see the doctor. I would say that you could probably sleep on the left side without doing any damage to the right shoulder, but it may be a bit clumsy especially if the doctor wants you to wear a sling.

  4. says


  5. Sally gonzales says

    I am fixing to have right shouder replacement is their certain pillows I need to get?? I have a big recliner thanks

  6. says

    I had rotator cuff surgery February 10, 2014 and have been sleeping in my recliner up until two weeks ago. I transitioned to my bed. I sleep okay in my bed but I wake up every morning with excruciating pain in my back and my neck. Did I transition too soon from my recliner to my bed and should I have done it not 8 hours all at once? I am considering going to a chiropractor. I am going back to my recliner until I can see my surgeon again.

    • says

      I am guessing that your back is now accustomed to the reclined position rather than the supine position that your bed provides. Seeing a chiro may not be a bad idea. I would also work on strengthening your back.

      Is there any way that you can gradually decrease the angle on the recliner? That might also be a good idea.

  7. Jesse says

    I just had a distal clavicle excision 5 days ago. I’ve been sleeping on my reclining couch and tried tonight to sleep on my bed. Felt like my shoulder was pulling and my incision started to burn, will I just have to “work out” the stiffness? Or do I need more time on the couch reclining? Thanks!

  8. Izzy Badjio says

    I had rotated cuff surgery a month ago, still in the sling. I was shifting my car from park to drive when I felt the most excruciating pain. It’s been over 4 hours and I am still in a lot of pain. Even uusing my fingers to type hurts, how do I know if I messed up my injury.? Any advice would be helpful.

    • says

      You probably just strained it. Ice it for a few days and let it rest. I would also avoid any pulling or pushing with the arm until you get the “okay” from the doctor. It is a bit early to be shifting car gears with the arm. It generally takes 4-6 weeks for the anchors that the doctor used to adequately heal into place.

      If the pain doesn’t get any better in a few days talk to the doc about it.

  9. lAWANDA says

    I had a hold shoulder replacement on the 26 of June. I can’t sleep at night the pain is in my elbow an wrist what can i do about that.?I’m still sleeping in my recliner i can go to sleep thin then i woke up from the pain is that something i should be going to the doctor for?

  10. marian says

    I had rotor cuff surgery done on June19! For a week now I have been accident sleep on my shoulder! Is that harming my shoulder in any way?

  11. Sally Rumph says

    I had massive rotator cuff repair surgery on July 10. I am married to my sling for a minimum
    of 8 weeks. i am experiencing sleep disabling pain in my forearm and hand. I usually get about
    2 hours and the pain will waken me. I will adjust position and ice, to no avail. I am guessing this is
    a circulation (lack thereof) issue. Any suggestions? Thank you.

    • says

      Sally is there any way to adjust the sling so that your elbow is less bent?? You may be getting irritation of the nerves as they pass through the elbow. A sustained flexion of the elbow will sometimes cause trouble like that.

  12. Raelene says

    I had these procedure done
    1: synovectomy, debridement of Lalbrum, tenotomy of the bicep tendon, acromloplasty, cop landing of the clavicle of my right shoulder on July 15 and how long should I sleep in a recliner and wear the sling?

      • says

        Raelene it sounds like you had a lot done on the shoulder. You may find it necessary to use the recliner for a month or two for sleeping comfort. Don’t worry about it if you have to go even longer than that.

        In terms of the sling, ask the surgeon. He or she may want you to wean off of it slowly.

    • says

      Can you recline rather than lying down? I would also try to place a pillow under your elbow and arm like in the blog picture. As far as toileting goes, you are probably going to have to figure out how to use the other arm for the short term.

      The doc should also be able to prescribe you something short term for sleeping comfort. Ask him if there are any options.

  13. jose jimenez says

    Presciptions don’t seem to b working, can’t go anywhere long. Holiday weekend, need to wash myself, how?

    • Dan says

      I would see the doc this week to see if you can get something else for the pain. In terms of hygiene, can you sit in a bath tub and use a shower attachment with your good hand with your surgical shoulder resting on something? Is there anyone else around to help you out?

  14. Hattye says

    I had a total shoulder replacement approximately 3 mos. ago due to severe arthritis being one of the problems. I’m still having sleeping issues. I have sleep apnea, more noticeable when lying on my back. I’m a side sleeper and I’m now having problems with other shoulder pain. . I’ve been looking at the pillow on to help take stress off sleeping on my side; any suggestions would be greatly appreciated. Thank you in advance for any suggestions.

    • says

      Hattye I would recommend sleeping in a partially reclined position. A “Lazy Boy” type reclining chair might place you in a more comfortable position.

      Some people with sleep apnea do indeed have a very difficult time sleeping flat. If you don’t have access to a reclining chair, it might be possible to prop yourself up with a bunch of pillows placed behind you.

  15. drew says

    i just had labrum repair done, arthritis repaired, ac bone snipped? its been 20 days now, diff sleeping #1, can i leave my arm out of my sling if im not doing anything other than sitting, or just general moving about the day? i have some moderate pain, only once in a ahwile .ty ps. how much movement does it take to disrupt the 5 anchors that are installed? i heard the drs do a good job @ them, so it would take a mod blunt force to hurt/disrupt them?

  16. Andrea Freund says

    I just finished speaking to a woman whose husband has to sleep in a recliner. She’s been looking for a pillow that keeps his neck and head from rolling around and found my website. It’s a pillow specifically designed for a recliner.

    Hope you’re able to find a way to be comfortable!

  17. Cathy says

    I’m wearing a sling for a bicep tenodesis and having a hard time at night. I wake up a few hours in to the night with numb pinky and ring finger a cold hand. my elbow hurts pretty much all the time now too. It’s been almost two weeks in the sling and im not sure how much longer I will need. Read your blog about the ulnar nerve but don’t know how I can correct my issue while in the sling any suggestions? I am also worried this will become worse and the numbness will become continual

    • says

      Cathy I do think that your ulnar nerve is being irritated by the forced bending position of the elbow in the sling. Is there any way that you can lessen the amount of bend in the elbow while in the sling? I would ask the doc if it would be okay to sleep out of the sling, perhaps with a pillow under the arm and the forearm. This is a bit tricky because we do not need you messing up the doctor’s work.

  18. Deirdre says


    I had ORIF for a Right proximal humerus fx 4 weeks ago and I’m hoping I can ditch the sling at my 6 week visit. But I reallywant to know when I can drive again. The dr said the PT would tell me but the PT says the dr will clear me. What is the typical time frame for returing to driving after such a procedure?


    • says

      Usually the bone has healed by week 6. It is really just a matter of what type of strength you have at that point. Most people can drive immediately once they are no longer using a sling. The doctor needs to assess your motion and strength before you get the green light.

  19. Cindy T says

    I am six weeks post op of rotator cuff surgery that was full thickness tear and a bone spur shaved off PT’s says I can start getting out of the sling but I would like to know how to transition from my recliner to my bed I tried last night and after three hours I was aching and couldn’t get comfortable anymore went back to my recliner. I am still sleeping with my sling not sure if I need too. I am scared ha ha. I don’t want to have to go through this again

    • says

      Cindy most docs will usually ween you off the sling by week six, but I would ask the doctor to be sure. It may take a bit of transition to get back to the bed. You could maybe try sleeping for a few hours at a time in the bed to build up your tolerance to a less reclined position???

      If you sleep on your back try placing a pillow under the elbow and forearm like in the article (see the picture). That might be a good transition for you.

  20. Kate Kaye says

    I fell and crushed my humerus and the rotator cuff was completely severed off. I had a reverse total shoulder replacement. The surgeon told me I could remove my sling after three weeks. That’s it! No other instructions. My pain is unbearable at times and sleeping is impossible. My husband bought me a recliner but I’m having a very difficult time adjusting to sleeping on my back. I’m 50 and have always been a side sleeper. Any suggestions? I’m feeling so depressed.

    • says

      Kate I would talk to the doctor about getting the right pharmaceuticals to help you sleep through the night. One thing is for sure, you would not be helping yourself by sleeping on the surgical side.

      You could also try placing pillows under the forearm and elbow like in the photo while you are in the reclined position.

    • Sarah Smith says

      Take enough meds and get some muscle relaxer to go with the meds. That seem to help me. But I’m still in pain with therapy.

  21. Katrina Wilkerson says

    Oh Lord Help Me!!! Please give me the name of the best sling that I can purchase post rotator cuff surgery.

    • says

      Katrina if you Google “shoulder sling with pillow” there are some good options out there. I would guess that you might do better with a sling that has a pillow that rests under the forearm.

      Try the “Super SLing Plus”

  22. Dee says

    May 21st I had shoulder surgery, Supposedly, I had two large holes in rotator cuff, my bicep needed to be reattached and bone spurs – the Dr told me before surgery that he would only be making 3 incisions. When I came out of surgery my husband was told that when they got in there it was a lot more repairs that needed to be done …so he had to make 5 incisions. The pain medication is not working neither is the bio-chill….I’m sleeping in a recliner….I cannot get comfortable. Is there anything else I can do to get comfortable? The least bit of movement puts me into tears….

    • says

      When it is this early medication is usually the main thing used to control pain. If your meds are not making a dent in your pain I would call the doc and ask him or her if there is something else that can be prescribed.

      Placing a pillow under the elbow and forearm will allow for better blood flow to the shoulder. There is a photo in one of these blogs that shows just what I am talking about.

  23. says

    I had rotator, labrum repair almost 1 Month ago. Every position seems difficult in or out of sling. Most of pain in my biceps. Also when I awaken arm and neck on affected side very stiff and painful. ..Please Help!

    • says

      I would make sure that you have a good pain or anti-inflammatory medication from your doctor. I would also see a PT to get some work done on the neck and shoulder. You should hopefully by now have some PT exercises to at least begin to get the shoulder moving.

      It also is important that you try to start carrying your arm in a more “normal” position. Seeing a good PT should help to get you some instruction.

  24. Carolyn says

    I wold like to say I had rotater cuff surgery(*right side ( on Jun 10th and I started sleeping on the couch 1 week after surgery, and I have no complaints. Is,this unusal? I go to my post op June 29 2015

  25. jennifer says

    i had anterior + inferior surgery on a torn labrum 5 weeks ago, i still feel sharp pains in my shoulder/collar bone area and my hand, fingers and wrist are very very sore and not strong. is that normal? :( jen

    • says

      Bring it up to the doctor Jennifer. If your arm is in a sling for a good amount of time that can cause pains like that, as the shoulder does get pressed forward a bit. The weakness in the hand might be due to stress on the nerve bundles that pass through the front of the shoulder. Have the doc assess this.

  26. says

    Hi Doctor:

    Here is the result from my MRI:
    Biceps tendon: The long head biceps tendon is dislocated medially
    from the bicipital groove and extends into the substance of the
    subscapularis, reflecting the distal subscapularis tendon noted
    above. The long head biceps tendon is contiguous and no biceps tendon
    tear is appreciated.

    Question: I participate in brazilian jiu-jitsu regularly (it is like wrestling); this injury happened about 3 months ago and it is feeling better. Very little pain, and my shoulder has good motion in all directions. My main problems are weakness (although i am still lifting weights and doing jiu jitsu), and i can’t do some activities like throwing a ball or swinging a golf club comfortably.

    My doctor recommends surgery given my activity level (i’m 43 by the way). I know you haven’t seen the MRI, but i’m curious if you have an opinion on whether I should get it done now, or if it’s ok to wait indefinitely. I appreciate your thoughts.

    • says

      Jason realize here that I am a PT and I am not technically trained to interpret MRI’s like that…….

      But…..based on what you said it sounds to me like the long head of the biceps is placed at a disadvantage if it permanently slides off to the side like that. My guess is that you would probably have a permanent loss of strength with the biceps motion because it that is not the most anatomically efficient place. That is not likely to change without surgery.

      If you can live with the loss of strength, you would probably be okay. But also realize that high level activity like martial arts where you are grappling will place stress on that shoulder, and I would gather than the position of the biceps might make you more susceptible to injuring the shoulder.

      I would get a second opinion from another orthopedist.

  27. Sam says

    I am 2 weeks post op small rotator cuff tear,some bone shaving to get rid of spur and impingement, and work on tendon. Also have lots of arthritis from RA. Only one anchor. PT hurts so bad as therapist passively moves arm to gain range. How hard does she have to push this early

    • says

      Sam I am conservative when it comes to stretching early on. In my opinion the stretching should only be moderately uncomfortable. If your eyes are popping out of your head with pain, back off a bit and let the therapist know.

  28. mr magoo says

    Had a grade 3 shoulder surgery (key-hole) few days ago & now have to wear a sling for 6 weeks but it hurts my shoulder blade too much, can I wear a shoulder support instead?..

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