It’s summertime, and who doesn’t love to beat the heat with time in the pool? Swimming is a summertime staple, whether it’s a quick dip or some laps in the pool. But time in the pool can also mean time on the sidelines because swimming can lead to several injuries. If you’re a recreational swimmer who simply likes to float in the cool water on a hot day or try out some cannonballs off the diving board, you’re not super-susceptible to common swimming injuries. However, if you’re a competitive swimmer or even just a weekend warrior who enjoys laps in the pool for exercise, there are some injuries to keep in mind–and try to prevent.
Rotator Cuff Injuries
At the heart of the shoulder is the rotator cuff, a set of tendons and muscles that provides stability in the shoulder. If you’re a baseball fan, you’ve likely heard of pitchers suffering from rotator cuff injuries caused by repetitive throwing. But if you think about it, swimmers probably put more stress on their shoulders than pitchers do since the movement and rotation are constant.
How It Can Happen: Rotator cuff injuries are often the result of a lack of warm-up or stretching. And while proper stretching and strengthening techniques can reduce the risk of a rotator cuff injury from swimming, the repeated stress and movement in the shoulder can still wear the rotator cuff down, leaving it more susceptible to injury. Age can also play a factor, as can poor stroke mechanics.
Symptoms: Shoulder pain is usually a good indicator of a rotator cuff injury, as are swelling and arm weakness. If the rotator cuff is completely torn, you may not be able to rotate your shoulder correctly.
Treatment: For minor rotator cuff injuries, the RICE method (Rest, Ice, Compression, Elevation) can alleviate the pain and swelling, but physical therapy is often successful in treating rotator cuff injuries. At Physical Therapy NOW in Irving, for example, we would customize an exercise program to your shoulder pain so you can regain strength and restore flexibility. More serious rotator cuff injuries could require injections or surgery, followed by PT to help the shoulder recover.
Shoulder Impingement Syndrome (Swimmer’s Shoulder) and Other Shoulder Inflammation
There’s a good reason why shoulder impingement syndrome is commonly referred to as “swimmer’s shoulder.” This injury occurs when the top outer edge of the shoulder blade impinges on (or rubs against) your rotator cuff below, causing pain and irritation. This injury can coincide with rotator cuff injuries.
How It Can Happen: According to the Cleveland Clinic, when your rotator cuff is irritated or injured, it swells like your ankle does when it’s sprained. However, because your rotator cuff is surrounded by bone, swelling causes other events to occur. Swelling reduces the amount of space around the rotator cuff, leading to rubbing against the top edge of the shoulder blade. This rubbing of the rotator cuff tendons results in swelling, which further narrows the space below the top edge of the shoulder blade. Shoulder impingement can also occur when your tendon is torn or swollen or when your bursa sac is irritated and inflamed.
Symptoms: Pain is the primary symptom of shoulder impingement, and it can occur when your arms are extended above your head; you lift, lower, or reach your arm; when you sleep; and when you’re lying on your side. Along with pain, you might feel tenderness at the front of your shoulder and shoulder and/or arm weakness and stiffness.
Treatment: Rest, ice, and over-the-counter pain relievers can help, but physical therapy is usually the most effective treatment for shoulder impingement syndrome. We can show you stretching exercises that improve your shoulder’s range of motion; once the pain subsides, strengthening exercises for your rotator cuff would likely be the next step in your treatment.
Lower Back Pain
Anyone who has experienced lower back pain knows how excruciating it can be. Swimming competitively with lower back pain is no easy task, yet this pain has become quite commonplace for swimmers.
How It Can Happen: As with shoulder injuries, repetitive stress is often the cause of lower back pain in swimmers, particularly if you’re not using the correct technique during your strokes–swimmers call this “poor body roll.” This occurs when swimmers arch their back to clear their head from the water, putting stress on the joints at the back of the spine. In addition to improper technique, tight hip flexor muscles, poor core stability, and weak gluteal muscles can also contribute to lower back pain.
Symptoms: The primary symptom of lower back pain? Well, pain…in your lower back. The pain can feel dull and achy and travel down into your buttocks and legs. It can also feel sharp and stabbing and render you unable to make just about any movement without pain.
Treatment: There are a few different ways to attack lower back pain. One is to get the pain under control–this is important because any further treatment or prevention methods are pretty challenging to begin if you’re in a lot of pain. Depending on the type and severity of the injury, an approach using heat, ice, and rest can be effective. As can some pain medications (both prescription and OTC), topical creams, and injections. Once the pain is under control, physical therapy is a great way to help prevent future back pain through exercises designed to increase your flexibility, strengthen your back and abdominal muscles, and improve your posture.
The biceps muscle (the one you flex to show off) consists of the long head and the short head. The long head is the part that runs the length of the arm and attaches to the shoulder joint. Biceps tendonitis is the inflammation or irritation of the tendon (the thick fibrous cord that connects muscle to bone) along the long head of the muscle.
How It Can Happen: Swimmers often develop biceps tendonitis through the repetitive overhead and reaching movement of the arms during swimming, poor stroke technique, tightness in the shoulder and muscles, and underdeveloped muscles surrounding the rotator cuff. Age can also play a factor.
Symptoms: Swimmers with biceps tendonitis will often experience dull, cramping, or aching pain at the front of the shoulder; sharp pain in the same area; and/or tenderness in the front of the shoulder. Sometimes the pain radiates down the front of the arm or up toward the neck. You may feel weakness in the shoulder joint, especially if you’re lifting objects or reaching overhead. Some swimmers may feel “clicking” in the front of the shoulder as well.
Treatment: As with the other injuries on this list, it’s important to reduce inflammation and pain before starting any exercise program. Rest, ice/heat, and medication generally help ease the pain of biceps tendonitis. Once the pain has subsided, a physical therapist will work with you to improve your range of motion and build strength in the shoulder joint, so you can get back to normal activities before resuming more rigorous activities such as swimming.
Physical Therapy NOW Can Help You Get Back in the Pool
At Physical Therapy NOW in Irving, we see all types of sports-related injuries, including common swimming injuries. Our experienced team knows how to get you back on your feet–and in the pool–quickly and safely. After you’ve seen your doctor, call us at (214) 225-0291 to set up your initial appointment. We’ll examine your swimming injury and work with you to create the perfect treatment plan to get you back to doing what you love.