December 22, 2020 7 min read

Your body is made up of many muscles and tendons that work together to help you move through life. But sometimes, these systems can be disturbed by injuries and/or medical conditions. One of the most common muscle and tendon injuries in the body is to the rotator cuff, which drives nearly 2 million Americans to seek medical care each year.

over 2 million americans have rotator cuff problems infographic

The rotator cuff is a group of muscles and tendons that surround your shoulder joint, keeping your arm and shoulder connected. This collection of muscles and tendons can be displaced or disturbed, causing dull aches and pains in the shoulder that can worsen over time. Additionally, rotator cuff injuries, such as a rotator cuff tear, may manifest as a more intense feeling of pain.

No matter the source of your shoulder pain, you’re likely looking for some relief. In this post, we’ll take a look at several methods of managing rotator cuff pain and focus on how you can find nighttime relief with the help of a rotator cuff pillow.

Read through for a comprehensive take on the causes of rotator cuff pain, helpful tips for managing shoulder pain, and learn how to choose the best pillow for rotator cuff pain. Or, use the links below to jump to the topic that best answers your question.

Causes of Rotator Cuff-Related Shoulder Pain

There are several treatment methods for rotator cuff pain, but before you can find a remedy that works for you, learning more about what’s causing your shoulder pain is a good place to start. According to the Mayo Clinic, generic shoulder pain can be caused by:

  • Avascular necrosis (death of bone tissue due to limited blood flow)
  • Brachial plexus injury
  • Broken arm
  • Broken collarbone
  • Bursitis (joint inflammation)
  • Cervical radiculopathy
  • Dislocated shoulder
  • Frozen shoulder
  • Heart attack
  • Impingement
  • Osteoarthritis (disease causing the breakdown of joints)
  • Polymyalgia rheumatica
  • Rheumatoid arthritis (inflammatory joint disease)
  • Rotator cuff injury
  • Separated shoulder
  • Septic arthritis
  • Sprains
  • Tendinitis
  • Tendon rupture
  • Thoracic outlet syndrome
  • Torn cartilage

If your shoulder pain is more centralized near the top of your shoulder or worsens when you’re reaching up or out, you might be experiencing rotator cuff-related shoulder pain. Harvard Medical School cites the following as possible triggers of rotator cuff pain:

  • Pushing off or applying pressure to your arms: Individuals who have weakened knees, hips, or legs tend to apply more pressure to their arms instead when they’re standing up from the ground or a chair. Your arms, specifically the muscles and tendons in your shoulders are not built to withstand such pressure and can eventually wear down, causing rotator cuff pain.
  • Repetitive reaching or winding: Another potential cause of rotator cuff pain is repetitively reaching or winding your arms over your head. This motion can cause grinding and inflammation in the area. Activities such as swimming, pitching a baseball, painting, and doing pushups are commonly associated with rotator cuff injuries. 
  • Forceful or abrupt overhead movements: Tears are another trigger for rotator cuff pain and commonly occur among athletes. Abrupt force or movements such as starting up a lawn mower, wrestling, or participating in swinging sports like tennis, baseball, and racquetball can all provoke rotator cuff injuries.

Now that you know a little bit more about the potential causes of rotator cuff pain and shoulder pain in general, let’s take a look at some of the ways you can manage your symptoms, specifically while you’re sleeping.

man holding shoulder from night time rotator cuff pain

Treatment for Rotator Cuff Pain

According to Harvard Medical School, there are a variety of treatment methods that can be applied for tendonitis, bursitis, and minor rotator cuff injuries:

  • Physical therapy
  • Corticosteroid injections
  • Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs)
    • Ibuprofen
    • Advil 
    • Motrin
  • Ultrasound treatment
  • Surgery 

Other tips for managing rotator cuff pain

While chronic and more serious rotator cuff injuries may require surgery and other actions to resolve shoulder pain completely, there are plenty of things you can do to manage your symptoms on your own, and with the guidance of a healthcare professional. 

Here are a few tips to help you take control of your rotator cuff pain:

  • Following the first few days of your rotator cuff injury, apply ice to the affected area for 15-20 minutes, every 4-6 hours.
  • To minimize inflammation and pain, consider using a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID), such as, ibuprofen.
  • Avoid reaching up, out, or overhead so as not to trigger rotator cuff pain, but instead, do exercises that stretch and strengthen the area effectively. Some rotator cuff-friendly exercises include:
    • Weighted pendulum exercise
    • Towel stretch
    • Cross-body stretch
    • Inward rotation
    • Outward rotation
  • If you experience nocturnal shoulder pain, like 91% of patients with shoulder pain, use a rotator cuff pillow to support your body and minimize discomfort while you’re sleeping.

Depending on the severity of your rotator cuff pain, it could take anywhere between 2-4 weeks for small tears and several months for more serious cases.

How to Choose the Best Pillow for Rotator Cuff Pain

As we mentioned, nighttime pain is extremely common in patients dealing with shoulder pain and rotator cuff injuries; approximately 91% of patients report having dealt with shoulder pain while sleeping. If you’re one of them, the next best step to putting a stop to your pain may be as simple as using a rotator cuff pillow.

In this next section, we’ll discuss what a rotator cuff pillow is and offer up some tips to help you choose the best rotator cuff pillow for surgery and pain management.

What is a rotator cuff pillow?

A rotator cuff pillow, also known as a shoulder pillow, helps take pressure off of the affected shoulder while sleeping on your side. Rotator cuff pillows, like the MedCline Shoulder Relief System, position the sleeper at an incline with a pocket underneath the wedge, allowing the arm to rest comfortably underneath.

Benefits of using a rotator cuff pillow

Some of the benefits associated with using a rotator cuff pillow can include, reduced shoulder pressure, pain relief in the rotator cuff area and shoulder, and better sleep quality.

Choosing the best rotator cuff pillow for surgery and pain management

Whether you’ve recently undergone shoulder surgery or are taking pain management into your own hands, it’s important that you take the time to do your research in order to find the best rotator cuff pillow for you.

Here are some guidelines to use while you shop for the right pillow for your rotator cuff pain:

  • Your preferred sleeping position: Side-sleeping (on the unaffected side) and sleeping on your back are the two best sleeping postures for shoulder pain. Most rotator cuff pillows, including the Shoulder Relief System, position you on your side to minimize pain. Keep your preferred sleeping position in mind as you shop for a rotator cuff pillow.
  • Materials: High-quality materials such as memory foam, buckwheat, latex, and down tend to offer more support for a longer period of time. Another bonus to look for when it comes to materials is the addition of removable, washable cases which are easy to remove and clean as needed.
  • Loft/thickness: Loft, also known as thickness, describes how supportive the pillow feels. If you sleep on your side, you’ll need more support than back and stomach-sleepers. Ultimately, you want your head and neck to feel supported and in alignment with the rest of your body.
  • Stability: Choosing a rotator cuff pillow that promotes stability is key. The best rotator cuff pillows for surgery and pain keep your body stabilized so as not to trigger pain or discomfort in your shoulders or anywhere else where you might feel pain while sleeping.
  • Your physician’s instructions: Whenever you’re making medical decisions, it’s a good idea to consult your physician to find the most comprehensive treatment plan for your needs.

man in holding shoulder in pain

Rotator Cuff Pillow FAQs 

To expand your research and knowledge of rotator cuff pillows, we’ve created a list of frequently asked questions and their answers below.

How does a rotator cuff pillow work?

Rotator cuff pillows support the head and neck while alleviating pressure from the affected shoulder, giving the arm a pocket to rest comfortably underneath.

how does rotator cuff pillow work infographic

What is the best recommended pillow for recovering from a rotator cuff surgery?

A pillow that supports and stabilizes the body while alleviating pressure from the shoulder is generally considered to be the best rotator cuff pillow for surgery. 

What is the best sleeping position for rotator cuff pain?

Sleeping on the side of your unaffected shoulder is considered the best sleeping position for dealing with shoulder and rotator cuff pain.

How do you relieve rotator cuff pain at night?

Enlisting the help of a rotator cuff pillow, such as MedCline’s Shoulder Relief System is one of the most effective ways to relieve rotator cuff pain at night. Other helpful treatment tips include:

  • Icing for 15-20 minutes every 4-6 hours directly after injury
  • Taking NSAIDs, such as, ibuprofen, Advil, or Motrin as needed
  • Doing shoulder-strengthening and stretching exercises 

Meet MedCline’s Shoulder Relief System

Our patented three-component Shoulder Relief System is designed with medical-grade materials, comfort, and convenience in mind. The Shoulder Relief System aims to alleviate chronic shoulder pain, lingering rotator cuff pain, and general shoulder discomfort at night using the following key features:

Relieves pressure

A patented arm pocket relieves shoulder pressure so you can sleep comfortably on your side.

Gradual incline

The shoulder relief wedge pillow props you up just high enough to take the pressure off of your downside arm and shoulder.

Symmetrical design

Feel free to sleep on your right or left side, thanks to our symmetrical design. Body pillow adds comfort and allows for neutral arm positioning for the upper arm.

Flexible arm positions

Position your arm out straight onto the bed or tucked under the body pillow to find what's comfortable for your specific shoulder injury.

How to use MedCline’s Shoulder Relief System

Our Shoulder Relief System is designed to be ready for instant relief. While components are compressed for shipping, they’ll start to restore their shape once the packaging materials have been removed. Once decompressed, fluff the Body Pillow and Insert Pillow vigorously to help regain shape. 

MedCline can be slept on immediately but may take 72+ hours for any residual “new memory foam” smells to dissipate. Foam typically takes about 30 nights to break in and meld to your body.

Want to learn more about how our Shoulder Relief System can help alleviate your rotator cuff pain? Head to our MedCline FAQ page or speak to one of our Sleep Specialists today.