What to Do When You Get Shoulder Pain from Swimming

If you’re a swimmer who’s experienced pain in your shoulders, neck, or anywhere in the upper limbs, you’re not alone. Those who regularly swim are highly likely to experience an overuse injury at some point in their life. In fact, studies show that male elite swimmers reported 4.00 injuries per 1,000 hours of training, and female elite swimmers reported 3.78 injuries per 1,000 hours of training. Of those injuries, 40-91 percent were in the shoulder area.

swimming shoulder injury
Photo Credit: Marcus Ng

What Causes Swimmer’s Shoulder?

Also called impingement syndrome, this type of swimming injury is commonly known as swimmer’s shoulder. The syndrome is defined as any overuse injury in the shoulder area due to swimming. Injuries can range from a minor annoyance to a severe impediment, including tendonitis, rotator cuff tears, ligament damage, and more. Injuries can be localized in the shoulder or spread with pain in the neck or arm.

No matter the severity or location of pain, almost all swimmer’s shoulder injuries spring from rotator cuff tendons becoming inflamed or irritated. This can happen when a swimmer engages in excessive training, uses improper technique, or has other existing shoulder injuries.

Swimmer’s shoulder can also occur due to undeveloped muscles or weak ligaments and tendons in the shoulder.

How Can You Treat Swimmer’s Shoulder?

Luckily, there are a variety of treatments to minimize problems due to swimmer’s shoulder. Read on for ideas on ways to manage pain and prevent future injury.

Use the RICE Technique

As with many injuries, the acronym RICE is helpful for immediate treatment in the early phases of swimmer’s shoulder: rest, ice, compression, and elevation. Compression can be accomplished with a sling or tape. To keep the shoulder area elevated, you may need to sleep with several pillows to prop you up at night. Following these steps should bring a bit more comfort to anyone experiencing shoulder pain swimming.

Manage Pain with Anti-Inflammatories

Anti-inflammatory medication will help to reduce inflammation of the rotator cuff and relieve pain. You’ll want to choose a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory (NSAID), such as ibuprofen (Advil or Motrin). Your doctor may recommend an over-the-counter NSAID like naproxen (Aleve). Note that this is a short-term resolution to manage pain. If swimming shoulder injuries continue over a long period or increase in severity, consult your doctor about other options to treat the pain.

Stretch and Massage

There are many different massage techniques to help reduce pain from swimmer’s shoulder. Any type of sports massage will help to reduce soreness and stretch muscles and connective tissues. This should prevent the pain from worsening and help with relaxation. If you choose to get a massage, be sure to use a licensed professional and stay hydrated before and after the massage.

Is Swimmer’s Shoulder Preventable?

If you have yet to experience swimmer’s shoulder or have recovered from swimmer’s shoulder in the past, there are many things you can do to avoid injury in the future. Here are a few techniques to try.

Warm Up Properly

Like all types of exercise, warming up is key to preventing injury. But many swimmers do not use the proper methods to warm up before their swim. To avoid overuse problems, try muscle activation exercises that target the muscles you’ll be using in the pool, such as the rotator cuff and scap stabilizers. Some example exercises are arm circles and “Standing T’s” (raise arms out to the side, parallel to the ground, and squeeze the shoulder blades together).

Strengthen Other Muscle Groups

Many swimmers focus on strengthening the same muscles they’ll be working hard in the water. But research shows that it’s also important to strengthen support muscles that are often in a weaker state since they don’t get used as much while swimming. Spend time working out opposing muscle groups to really improve your swim performance and avoid injury.

Take Recovery Seriously

Elite swimmers spend hours and hours in the pool every week. They may think hard about their time in the pool, but the recovery time on dry land is just as important. Swimmers should recover by getting proper nutrition (including protein and carbs), as well as adding post-swim stretches to increase mobility and promote blood flow. You’ll be more equipped to take on the next swimming session when you recover properly.

Learn New Swim Strokes

By following these tips for pain management and prevention of swimmer’s shoulder, you’ll be able to maximize your time in the pool and enjoy better swim performance with minimal pain and injury. Another excellent way to avoid swimming shoulder injuries is by practicing many different swimming strokes. Each stroke has its own advantages, so using a variety of styles will strengthen your shoulders and help you avoid swimming with shoulder injury. Learn about these different swimming strokes and styles from the experts at SwimJim today.