A Sleep Psychiatrist On The Impact Of "Arm Sleeping" & What To Do Instead

mindbodygreen Editorial Assistant By Sarah Regan
mindbodygreen Editorial Assistant

Sarah Regan is a writer, registered yoga instructor, and Editorial Assistant at mindbodygreen. She received her bachelor's in broadcasting and mass communication from SUNY Oswego, and lives in Brooklyn, New York.

Overhead photo of a woman sleeping with her arm under her head

Our sleep positioning plays a big role in the quality of sleep we get every night, and it goes without saying that greater-quality sleep equals greater quality of life. It turns out that certain positions—sleeping on your stomach, for example—can cause lots of neck and shoulder issues.

Another common culprit for neck and shoulder pain? Sleeping on your arm. Here, Nishi Bhopal, M.D., a psychiatrist specializing in sleep medicine, explains to mbg why sleeping on your arm can cause problems, and what to do about it.

The ergonomics of arm sleeping.

If you sleep on your side, you likely know this scenario all too well: You've been sleeping for hours with your arm wedged underneath your head. Maybe you wake up with a numb arm every once in a while, or a super stiff neck.

According to Bhopal, that's no coincidence; "Sleeping on your arm can cause shoulder and neck pain by compressing the nerves in the shoulders and misalignment of the head and the spine," she says. This can lead to that numb or tingling sensation in the arms and hands, and over time, she adds, it can also lead to tendinitis in the rotator cuff. (Ow.)

In particular, Bhopal notes those with a history of shoulder injuries or nerve impingement should definitely avoid sleeping with their arm under their head, especially on the side of the injury. 

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5 things to do if you're an arm sleeper:

1. Get a better pillow.

Propping your head and pillow up on your arm is an indication your pillow isn't supportive enough, whether it be too flat or just not firm enough. When we sleep on our sides, our pillow needs to completely fill the space between our head and shoulder, to keep everything in alignment. "Use a pillow that will support your neck and keep your head aligned with the spine," Bhopal adds.

2. Try sleeping on your back.

If you can, it might be worth trying to sleep in another position, such as on your back, especially if you're waking up with any pain, Bhopal says. This could even mean switching sides if you tend to prefer one side when you sleep.

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3. Experiment with pillow placement.

Along with making sure the pillow under your head is supportive enough, you can also work with some strategic pillow placement to further support alignment. When on your side, "you can put a pillow between the knees to keep your hips aligned," Bhopal says, "and hug a pillow in front of you to reduce the pressure on your shoulders."

4. Stretch it out.

To offset some of the effects of arm sleeping, Bhopal says light shoulder rolls and neck stretches can help loosen things up. Just be sure to warm up first if you're looking to stretch first thing in the morning. Our bodies are typically the most stiff when we first wake up, so Bhopal says it's best to loosen up with a warm shower or some light exercise.

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5. Set yourself up for deep and supportive sleep.

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And lastly, to go the extra mile and ensure you wake up feeling your best, don't let basic sleep hygiene fall by the wayside. Taking a sleep-supporting supplement like mbg's magnesium+, setting the thermostat to the optimal sleep temp of 65 degrees, having regular sleep and wake times, and encouraging overall well-being through a healthy diet and exercise all contribute to a better night's sleep (and morning).*

The bottom line.

If you sleep on your arm, it could be negatively affecting your neck, shoulders, and general sleep quality—but with a little adjusting and a sufficiently supportive pillow, you can get comfy without your arm under your pillow, and your neck will thank you for it.

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