Sleeping With Thoracic Outlet Syndrome: Sleeping Positions & Tips to Help You Sleep Better

Unfortunately many people who have thoracic outlet syndrome find it difficult to fall asleep and to stay asleep. If that’s you, thankfully there are some sleeping positions you can use that will make you feel more comfortable, and adjustments you can make to your sleep routine that will help you get a better quality sleep.

By making some changes to your sleep environment, adapting your routine before for sleep, and maintaining healthy habits, it is still possible to get a good sleep with this condition.

Below we show you the best ways of sleeping with thoracic outlet syndrome. We then share with you the sleeping positions that you should use, as well as one you must avoid.

But First: What Exactly is Thoracic Outlet Syndrome?

Pain in the shoulder and neck can occur when there is a compression of the blood vessel or nerves that exist in that area. Thoracic outlet syndrome refers to any one of a few disorders that cause this compression below the neck in the space that exists between the rib and the collarbone – which is called the thoracic outlet. Hence the name of this syndrome. 

Common causes that cause this syndrome are injuries that occur from accidents or trauma. The condition may also be present from birth due to a congenital defect, such as an extra rib that is present above the top rib, or a band connecting the rib to the spine. These would then create a compression in the area through a lack of space.

Having poor posture, slouching, or sitting with your head positioned forward can cause this condition to develop too. When a job or hobby has repetitive movements that continue over long periods of time, that can also cause this syndrome to occur.

The three types of thoracic outlet syndrome include: neurogenic, which involves the brachial plexus nerves that travel from the spinal cord to control the arm, shoulder, and hand; venous which involves the veins that are found under the clavicle becoming compressed and which then forms blood clots; and arterial which compresses not just veins, but the artery under the clavicle. These can occur one at a time, or all at once, and people can have any combination of the three types at the same time.

Below we look briefly at the symptoms, before looking at sleeping positions and ways of sleeping with thoracic outlet syndrome.

Symptoms of Thoracic Outlet Syndrome

Symptoms can vary depending on the type of thoracic outlet syndrome present, and depending upon what is compressed in the area.

Common symptoms of neurogenic thoracic outlet syndrome include your arms or fingers becoming numb or having a tingling sensation. Along with a loss of ability to grip things strongly with your hand.

There may also be muscle aches and discomfort, as well as pain present in your hand, shoulder, arm or neck. These symptoms will often remain constant and can last for extended periods of time, even over years.

Symptoms of venous thoracic outlet syndrome include similar pain in your arm that is often accompanied by swelling, along with your arm becoming tired as it is used. Discolouration will occur in your hand as the blood flow is disrupted, and it could also result in blood clots in the upper part of your body. If there is a restriction that is interrupting a large amount of blood flow, a lump may develop near your collarbone that will throb.

Arterial thoracic outlet syndrome is often accompanied by pain that occurs in both your hand and arm, and your arm may feel cold. The sense of cold and pain will move down your arm and into your hand and fingers, and the pulse usually felt within that arm will be weakened or unable to be detected. When your blood supply is disrupted by the compression, there will be a loss of colour throughout your arm and hand too, as well as a lack of colour or blue tint to your fingers.

If any of these symptoms occur on a consistent basis it is necessary to see a doctor as soon as possible. These symptoms can cause further damage to your arm, hand, and fingers due to a lack of circulation.

Sleeping Positions For Thoracic Outlet Syndrome

When sleeping it is important to ensure that your back, neck, head and spine are all aligned as well as possible. This involves finding a sleeping position that can be kept all night. Using a supportive pillow that help aligns your neck properly will help, as we will explain.

Sleeping On Your Side

If you’re a side sleeper you will need to find a pillow that offers support to your neck, even as your shoulders sink into your mattress. That’s because that sinking motion will adjust the angle on your neck.

Such a pillow should fill the space between your mattress and your head, and support your neck. That will allow for your spine to remain straight and for your neck to stay flat and straight during sleep.

That in turn will reduce the pressure in the space and will help to keep the thoracic outlet area open.

If you also place a pillow or a cushion between your knees that will help to align your spine in the lower portion of your body, which will reduce the pressure that builds up along the spine at the lower back. That will create the correct alignment for your upper body as well.

Furthermore when it comes to sleeping on your side, you should sleep on the opposite side to where the injury or compression has occurred. That can help reduce pain and discomfort in the area. And of course, reduced pain will improve both quality and quantity of sleep.

Placing a large pillow, body pillow, or other, in front of your body while side sleeping, and moving the affected arm over the top of the pillow – allowing your hand to drape down the other side of the pillow – will also reduce the pressure in the area and help to open the space. Even if the compression is not reduced in this way, it should lower discomfort and reduce pain, allowing for a better sleep to be had.

sleeping with thoracic outlet syndrome

Sleeping On Your Back

For sleeping on your back, it is important to ensure that your body is supported and that your pillow is much lower and flatter than one you would use for side sleeping. This will allow your neck to remain well aligned with your spine, and so will not add pressure to your neck, head or spine.

It is key to have the correct support that keeps your spine straight and your neck supported. This will not only reduce pressure that occurs in the area but will also reduce pain and discomfort for your entire body.

sleeping with thoracic outlet syndrome

Sleeping On Your Stomach

Stomach sleeping is not recommended as it will require your head to be turned for the entire night, and that will create added pressure on the front of your shoulder and the clavicle. This will increase pressure and the compression that is occurring in the area and can make the condition worsen.

As a last note on sleeping positions for thoracic outlet syndrome: People who find themselves changing position frequently during the night may find that it is helpful to place pillows or cushions around their body in order to maintain a comfortable and safe sleeping position. That can help to improve sleep by creating a safe and comfortable sleeping space.

sleeping with thoracic outlet syndrome

sleeping with thoracic outlet syndrome: Sleep Tips

There are many other things that can be done to encourage a quality sleep. We share them below:

1. Have a Bedtime & Waking Routine

Creating a routine for bedtime and for waking up in the morning is key to getting the best sleep.

That allows your body to form habits and rhythms, which supports the sleep cycle and helps you fall asleep faster and stay asleep longer.

By following a preparation routine each night, such as brushing your teeth, washing your face, or having a shower at the same time each day, your body will start to recognize these as preparations for rest. It will then naturally begin to switch from a daytime focus to evening, and that will help you fall asleep faster and easier.

This also works for waking up in the morning!

By waking up at the same time each morning your sleep cycle will adapt in a way that allows you to get the most sleep possible, and will ensure you wake up at the correct place in the sleep cycle so you can be less groggy and more focused.

Routines are a key way you can signal to your body that it is time to sleep. They encourage relaxation throughout your body. And the more your body relaxes the more likely there is to be release in the compression that is causing concern. All of which can help sleep quality and duration.

2. Have a Good Sleeping Environment

Having the right sleep environment can make sleeping easier.

Prepare your sleep environment to ensure any lighting is reduced to work with the body’s natural circadian rhythms. That includes getting rid of laptop or mobile phone screens when in bed, as the blue light from these devices can interrupt the sleep-wake cycle.

As one idea for the morning, an alarm clock that brightens the room slowly will help to ease your mind and body awake naturally, in contrast to a startling alarm clock. By slowly increasing the light in your room, your body feels as though it would during sunrise, and will wake gently and naturally from sleep. That creates a slower waking process that allows for your body to wake up at the correct place within the sleep cycle.

3. Sleep in Comfortable Clothes

Use pyjamas or sleepwear that is comfortable and not restricting. Any restricting clothing can actually increase the pressure that occurs in the collarbone area and can worsen the discomfort or pain that is being caused by a thoracic outlet condition.

4. Be Active During the Day

Finding ways to be physically active, talking walks, spending time outdoors, and exercising, are all ways to improve sleep quality at night.

Your body will use energy for these activities and that allows for your body to become tired. Being tired after doing physical activity should improve the speed in which you fall asleep, and improve sleep quality as well.

Sleeping With Thoracic Outlet Syndrome: Our Final Thoughts

Sleeping with thoracic outlet syndrome can be difficult due to the pain and discomfort felt throughout your arm and hand. However there are several things that can be done to improve sleep quality and quantity.

By maintaining healthy sleep habits, a regular schedule, and increasing exercise and activity during the day, you can improve your sleep. But it is also necessary to find a sleeping position, pillows, and even a mattress, that will help to keep your spine aligned through your neck and support your head.

When your head is well supported it allows your neck to remain straight and reduce the weight and pressure that your neck feels.

It is also key to sleep on your back or on the opposite side of your body to the injury. That helps to avoid increasing pressure and compression in the area. Sleeping on the side of the condition can increase pressure and boost pain and discomfort levels, preventing sleep in the process.