Why You May Feel Pain in the Front of Your Shoulder During the Sleeper Stretch (And What to Do About It)

When I do the sleeper stretch, I feel pain in the front of my shoulder. This is a common issue that many people experience, and it’s important to address it properly to avoid further discomfort or injury. Ideally, you should feel the sleeper stretch, working the posterior (back) part of your shoulder and arm. If you feel pain in the front of your shoulder during the sleeper stretch, it could indicate that your form is incorrect or this particular stretch may not suit your specific condition. In such cases, double-check your positioning and alignment or try a different shoulder stretch that targets the front of the shoulder more effectively without causing discomfort.

If you’ve ever woken up with a nagging ache or stiffness in your shoulder, you know how frustrating and debilitating it can be. The sleeper stretch is a simple yet effective exercise that can help alleviate shoulder pain, improve mobility, and prevent future injuries. In this comprehensive guide, we’ll explore the benefits of the sleeper stretch, how to perform it correctly, and when to seek professional help, including addressing the potential pain in the front of the shoulder during this stretch.

Key Takeaways:

  • The sleeper stretch is a valuable exercise for alleviating posterior shoulder tightness, improving internal rotation range of motion, and potentially reducing the risk of impingement or other shoulder problems.
  • Proper form and technique are crucial when performing the sleeper stretch to ensure safety and effectiveness.
  • While the sleeper stretch can benefit general shoulder pain and tightness, it may also help manage specific conditions like rotator cuff tendinitis, frozen shoulder, and bursitis.
  • Incorporating the sleeper stretch into your daily routine and other complementary stretches and exercises can promote overall shoulder health and mobility.
  • If your shoulder pain persists or worsens despite conservative measures, professional help from a physical therapist or healthcare provider is recommended.

What Is the Sleeper Stretch and Why Is It Important?

Sleeper Stretch

The sleeper stretch is a simple yet effective exercise that targets the posterior (rear) shoulder muscles, including the rotator cuff and posterior deltoid. These muscles are crucial in supporting the shoulder joint and enabling a full range of motion. However, they can become tight and inflamed due to various factors, such as poor posture, repetitive movements, or injuries, leading to shoulder pain and restricted mobility.

By performing the sleeper stretch, you can help alleviate tightness in the posterior shoulder muscles, improve shoulder internal rotation range of motion, and potentially reduce the risk of impingement or other shoulder problems.

Common Causes of Shoulder Pain You Shouldn’t Ignore

Shoulder pain can arise from various underlying causes, some requiring prompt medical attention. Here are some common culprits:

1. Rotator cuff tendinitis or tears: The rotator cuff is a group of four muscles and tendons that stabilize the shoulder joint. Overuse, aging, or acute injuries can lead to inflammation or tears in these tendons, causing pain and reduced mobility.

2. Bursitis: The bursa is a fluid-filled sac cushions the shoulder joint. Inflammation of the bursa, known as bursitis, can cause pain and stiffness, especially when performing overhead motions.

3. Frozen shoulder (adhesive capsulitis): This condition occurs when the shoulder capsule becomes thickened and tight, severely restricting shoulder mobility and causing pain.

4. Arthritis: Osteoarthritis (wear-and-tear arthritis) and rheumatoid arthritis can affect the shoulder joint, leading to pain, swelling, and stiffness.

5. Impingement syndrome occurs when the rotator cuff tendons become trapped or compressed between the acromion (bony protrusion) and the humerus (upper arm bone), causing pain and inflammation.

Mastering the Sleeper Stretch: A Step-by-Step Guide

Proper form is crucial when performing the sleeper stretch to ensure maximum effectiveness and prevent further injury. Here’s how to do it:

1. Lie on your side, with the affected shoulder resting on a flat surface (like a bed or mat).

2. Bend your knees and place your top foot slightly in front of your bottom foot to maintain balance.

3. Extend your bottom arm straight out, perpendicular to your body, with your palm facing up.

4. Use your top hand to gently push your bottom arm toward the floor, feeling a stretch in the back of your shoulder.

5. Hold the stretch for 30 seconds, then release and repeat for 2-3 sets.

Remember to squeeze your shoulder blades together and avoid arching your back or straining your neck during the stretch.

When Should You See a Doctor for Shoulder Pain?

While the sleeper stretch can be beneficial for mild to moderate shoulder pain, there are instances when seeking medical attention is crucial:

  • If the pain is severe, persistent, or worsens over time
  • If you have significant swelling or bruising around the shoulder joint
  • If you experience numbness, tingling, or weakness in your arm or hand
  • If the pain is accompanied by a fever or other concerning symptoms
  • If the pain is the result of a traumatic injury or fall

Your healthcare provider can perform a comprehensive evaluation, diagnose the underlying condition, and recommend appropriate treatment, including medication, physical therapy, or surgical intervention in severe cases.

The Role of Sleep Position in Shoulder Pain Management

The way you sleep can significantly impact shoulder pain and discomfort. If you’re a side sleeper, it’s essential to maintain proper shoulder alignment to avoid putting excessive strain on the joint. Here are some tips:

  • Sleep on your unaffected side or switch sides frequently.
  • Place a pillow between your knees to keep your hips aligned.
  • Use a supportive pillow that keeps your neck in a neutral position.
  • Avoid sleeping on your stomach, as this can cause your shoulder to rotate inward, leading to impingement.

Additionally, gentle stretches or using a cold or hot pack on your shoulder before bedtime can help ease discomfort and promote better sleep.

Incorporating the Sleeper Stretch into Your Daily Routine

To maximize the benefits of the sleeper stretch, it’s essential to incorporate it into your daily routine. Here are some tips:

  •  Perform the stretch first thing in the morning to alleviate stiffness and improve shoulder mobility for the day ahead.
  • Repeat the stretch several times throughout the day, especially after prolonged periods of inactivity or before and after physical activities that involve the shoulder.
  •  Consider setting reminders or alarms to help you remember to stretch regularly.
  •  If you have a desk job, take breaks to perform the sleeper stretch and other shoulder stretches to counteract the effects of poor posture and muscle tightness.

Remember to listen to your body and adjust the intensity and duration of the stretch as needed. Stop stretching and consult a healthcare professional if you experience increased pain or discomfort.

Stretches and Exercises to Complement the Sleeper Stretch

While the sleeper stretch is an excellent exercise for targeting the posterior shoulder muscles, it’s essential to incorporate other stretches and exercises into your routine to address overall shoulder health and mobility. Here are some complementary exercises to consider:

  • External rotation stretch: Stand with your affected arm bent at 90 degrees and your elbow tucked close to your body. Use your other hand to gently rotate your forearm outward, feeling a stretch in the back of your shoulder.
  • Wall angels: Stand with your back against a wall, feet shoulder-width apart. Raise your arms overhead, keeping your elbows and wrists in contact with the wall, forming a “W” shape. Gently lower your arms back down, maintaining contact with the wall.
  • Pendulum swings: Lean over and let your affected arm hang straight down. Gently swing your arm in a small circular motion, gradually increasing the size of the circles.
  • Resistance band exercises: Use resistance bands to perform external and internal rotation exercises and other shoulder strengthening exercises prescribed by a physical therapist or healthcare provider.

Remember to start slowly and gradually increase the intensity and duration of these exercises as your shoulder mobility improves.

Can the Sleeper Stretch Help with Specific Shoulder Conditions?

While the sleeper stretch is beneficial for general shoulder pain and tightness, it can also help manage specific shoulder conditions:

1. Rotator cuff tendinitis or impingement: By stretching the posterior shoulder muscles, the sleeper stretch can help alleviate compression on the rotator cuff tendons, reducing pain and improving the range of motion.

2. Frozen shoulder (adhesive capsulitis): This stretch can help gradually improve shoulder mobility and break up adhesions in the shoulder capsule, a common treatment approach for frozen shoulder.

3. Bursitis: Stretching the posterior shoulder muscles can help reduce pressure on the bursa, potentially alleviating inflammation and pain associated with bursitis.

4. Posture-related shoulder pain: Poor posture can lead to tightness in the posterior shoulder muscles, contributing to pain and discomfort. The sleeper stretch can help counteract this tightness and improve overall shoulder alignment.

However, it’s important to note that while the sleeper stretch can be beneficial, it should be used with other recommended treatments, such as medication, physical therapy, or other exercises prescribed by a healthcare professional.

Tips for Maximizing the Benefits of the Sleeper Stretch

To get the most out of the sleeper stretch and ensure safe and effective execution, consider the following tips:

1. Warm-up: Before stretching, engage in light cardio or dynamic stretching to warm up your muscles and increase blood flow to the area.

2. Breathe deeply: Inhale deeply as you move into the stretch, and exhale as you hold the position. Controlled breathing can help you relax and deepen the stretch.

3. Adjust the intensity: If the stretch feels too intense, adjust your arm position or use a towel or foam roller to provide additional support and decrease the stretch intensity.

4. Avoid bouncing: Perform the stretch in a smooth, controlled motion without bouncing or jerking movements, which can lead to injury.

5. Hold for the recommended duration: Most experts recommend holding the sleeper stretch for 30 seconds to allow the muscles to lengthen and relax gradually.

6. Repeat as needed: Depending on your level of tightness or discomfort, you may need to perform multiple sets of sleeper stretches throughout the day.

By following these tips, you can ensure you’re performing the sleeper stretch correctly and safely, maximizing its benefits for your shoulder health.

Seeking Professional Help: When to Consult a Physical Therapist

While the sleeper stretch and other self-care measures can be helpful for mild to moderate shoulder pain, there are situations where seeking professional help from a physical therapist is recommended:

1. If your pain persists or worsens despite stretching and other conservative measures.

2. If you have significant limitations in your range of motion or functional abilities due to shoulder pain or tightness.

3. If you’ve recently undergone shoulder surgery or experienced a shoulder injury that requires rehabilitation.

4. If you have a pre-existing condition, such as arthritis or a neurological disorder, that may affect your shoulder function and mobility.

A physical therapist can perform a comprehensive evaluation, identify the root cause of your shoulder issues, and develop a personalized treatment plan that may include manual therapy, therapeutic exercises, modalities (like ultrasound or electrical stimulation), and education on proper posture and body mechanics.

Working with a physical therapist can help you regain optimal shoulder function, prevent further injuries, and achieve long-term pain relief and improved quality of life.

Conclusion: What to Do When You Feel Pain in the Front of Your Shoulder During the Sleeper Stretch

The sleeper stretch can be an excellent exercise for relieving posterior shoulder tightness and improving internal rotation range of motion. However, it’s crucial to address the issue promptly if you experience pain in the front of your shoulder when performing this stretch.

If you feel pain in the front of your shoulder during the sleeper stretch, it may indicate improper form or that this stretch is unsuitable for your specific condition. Instead of pushing through the discomfort, take a step back and re-evaluate your technique. Ensure that your body is properly aligned, and consider using props like towels or foam rollers to adjust the intensity of the stretch.

If the pain persists despite adjustments to your form, it’s best to consult with a healthcare professional or physical therapist. They can assess your shoulder and provide personalized guidance on alternative stretches or exercises that may be more appropriate for your needs.

Remember, while stretching can benefit shoulder health, listening to your body and avoiding pushing through pain or discomfort is essential. By being mindful of your sensations and seeking professional help when necessary, you can safely incorporate shoulder stretches into your routine and work towards alleviating pain and improving mobility.


1. Sleeper Stretch Effectiveness Study:

Wilk, K. E., Obma, P., Simpson, C. D., & Cain, E. L. (2009). Shoulder injuries in the overhead athlete. Journal of Orthopaedic & Sports Physical Therapy, 39(2), 38-54. https://www.jospt.org/doi/10.2519/jospt.2009.2911

2. Sleeper Stretch for Shoulder Impingement:

Donatelli, R., Ellenbecker, T. S., Ekedahl, S. R., Wilkes, J. S., Kocher, K., & Adam, J. (2014). Assessment of posterior capsule stretching using the sleeper stretch on shoulder range of motion and posterior shoulder tightness. International Journal of Sports Physical Therapy, 9(1), 35-42. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3924605/

3. Causes of Shoulder Pain:

Ludewig, P. M., & Braman, J. P. (2011). Shoulder impingement: Biomechanical considerations in rehabilitation. Manual Therapy, 16(1), 33-39. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S1356689X10001025

4. Shoulder Pain Management:

Diercks, R., Bron, C., Dorrestijn, O., Meskers, C., Naber, R., de Ruiter, T., … & Dutch Orthopaedic Association. (2014). Guideline for diagnosis and treatment of subacromial pain syndrome: a multidisciplinary review by the Dutch Orthopaedic Association. Acta Orthopaedica, 85(3), 314-322. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.3109/17453674.2014.920991

5. Frozen Shoulder and the Sleeper Stretch:

Kelley, M. J., Shaffer, M. A., Kuhn, J. E., Michener, L. A., Seitz, A. L., Uhl, T. L., … & Godges, J. J. (2013). Shoulder pain and mobility deficits: adhesive capsulitis. Journal of Orthopaedic & Sports Physical Therapy, 43(5), A1-A31. https://www.jospt.org/doi/10.2519/jospt.2013.0302

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