Posted on by Amber Merton

woman recovering from shoulder surgery

Particularly after major surgery, sleep disturbances are commonplace. And having trouble sleeping after shoulder surgery is no different. According to the British Journal of Anaesthesia, the body goes through a metabolic and hormonal response to the trauma of surgery referred to as the “surgical stress response”. This response, along with other post-surgery side effects such as pain, fever, sore incision, anesthesia, insomnia, and medications, can disrupt both the quality and quantity of sleep a person receives after shoulder surgery.

The Anatomy of the Shoulder

The shoulder joint is made up of three main bones (the clavicle, the scapula, and the humerus); the shoulder bones work in tandem with muscles, ligaments, and tendons to give us movement. Unfortunately, sometimes a strain, injury, or faulty movement can result in pain, torn ligaments, or even dislocation. Although the first options are rest, physical therapy, cortisone injections, or medications for pain, sometimes the injury is so severe that surgery is needed.

Types of Shoulder Problems

There are a number of shoulder problems, each with their own likely cause and unique treatments. For example, bursitis or tendinitis often results from repetitive activities, such as painting, swimming, or weight lifting. Rotator cuff tears, whether partial or full, can be the result of a fall or heavy lifting. Either way, chronic inflammation is involved and sometimes spurs form. Fractures, including the collar bone or humerus, are other painful shoulder problems that may be treated with slings or surgery. Rheumatoid arthritis and osteoarthritis can also impact the shoulder joint, especially as one ages. While medications and physical therapy can help with these conditions, in some cases, shoulder replacement surgery is needed.

Types of Shoulder Surgery

Open surgery and arthroscopy are the two main types of surgical procedures used in the treatment of shoulder problems. The type of shoulder surgery your physician recommends is largely dependent on the severity of your injury. Depending on the type of surgery you undergo, comfortable sleeping after shoulder surgery will be more or less of an issue.

  • Shoulder Arthroscopy – With the advancements of technology and medicine, less invasive surgical procedures are being used in increasing frequency. One of these is arthroscopic shoulder surgery. Here, a small camera is used, and the surgeon makes a small incision around the injury region and inserts the camera. Shoulder arthroscopy is commonly used for rotator cuff tears, torn tendons, and shoulder impingements.
  • Open Shoulder Surgery – As you might expect, open shoulder surgery is more invasive than arthroscopy surgery. It’s used for correcting serious injuries or conditions, such as shoulder replacement surgery. Open surgery is also typically used to treat torn shoulder ligaments, Bankart lesion, or for people who experience recurrent shoulder dislocation. Rotator cuff surgery can be performed via open surgery.

Sleeping After Shoulder Surgery

It’s quite common to have difficulty sleeping after shoulder surgery, particularly in the first few days. Some people find it especially difficult to “get comfortable” and are unable to lean on the arm that had the surgery. Fortunately, there are a few things you can do to get more comfortable so you can get the sleep you need for your shoulder to heal:

  • Raise your upper body with pillows, says the National Institute of Health; refrain from lying flat.
  • Sleep in a reclined position, says physical therapist Dan Baumstark. As days pass after your surgery, you can lower your body over time until you eventually are horizontal. But Baumstark says this can take six weeks or longer, depending on your surgery.
  • Avoid sleeping on your side or stomach, says the Department of Orthopaedics and Sports Medicine, University of Washington (UW).
  • Support the elbow from behind using one or two pillows. You don’t want to let the elbow fall back onto the bed, the UW says.
  • Some rehab experts also recommend placing a pillow under the elbow and hand to allow for maximum blood flow to the shoulder tendons while you sleep.
  • Make sure you have a mattress that offers plenty of plenty of comfort and support. Natural latex mattresses are superb options for this. They remove a lot of pressure from “hot spots”, or trigger points.
  • If pain is extremely bothersome and preventing you from sleeping, take pain medications as prescribed by your doctor.

The most important thing to realize about sleeping after shoulder surgery is that it will get better over time. Just follow your doctor’s orders, and in no time you’ll be back to sleeping in your normal sleeping pattern.

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