Swimming offers individuals of all ages and fitness levels an opportunity to improve their orthopedic health through total body strength, conditioning, and endurance training. However, improper practices during swimming can frequently lead to injuries of the shoulder, knee, lower back, and neck. According to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, over 200,000 swimming injuries were treated at doctors’ offices, emergency rooms and other clinics in 2013.
Recognizing common swimming injuries and their prevention techniques can help you make greater strides toward reaching your health and fitness goals.
Swimmer’s shoulder refers to common swimming injuries that affect the shoulder joint due to over-training, improper stroke mechanics, tightness, or muscle instability during strokes like the crawl. Rotator cuff impingement causes inflammation of the rotator cuff muscles like the supraspinatus and biceps tendon when the shoulder blade and scapula compress these muscles as the arm is lifted.
Weakness of the shoulder muscles can also lead to biceps tendinitis, or inflammation of the biceps tendon. Swimmer’s shoulder can be prevented by avoiding arm strokes when the shoulder muscles are fatigued, minimizing the use of paddle boards to reduce strain on the shoulder muscles while swimming, or consulting with a swimming coach to ensure proper stroke form that will not lead to shoulder injury.
Swimmer’s knee commonly refers to one of the following injuries: medial collateral ligament stress syndrome, or stress on the medial collateral ligament of the knee joint; medial synovial plica syndrome, or irritation of the medial synovial plicae structures in the knee; or patellofemoral pain syndrome, or pain in the kneecap. These injuries often arise in breastrokers due to overuse of the knee, long-distance training, inadequate warm-up, or imbalance in the abductor muscle groups of the hip.
Swimmer’s knee can be prevented by alternating stroke types, gradually building up breaststroke training session distance and time duration, ensuring proper kick biomechanics, allowing time for adequate warm-up and recovery, and following a balanced training program that conditions both the hip and knee muscles.
Lower Back Injuries
Lower back injuries caused by swimming include disk problems due to repeated jerking of the spine during the crawl, breaststroke, or butterfly, and spondylolysis – a defect in the lumber or thoracic vertebrae that often arises in competitive swimmers who perform the dolphin kick. Incorrect form such as sinking hips and legs, and as a result, over-kicking and overarching of the back to keep the legs high, can also lead to lower back injuries. Lower back injuries can be prevented by improving position and balance during swimming, keeping the head tucked inward and the body in a relaxed horizontal position, improving body undulation so that the back does not over-extend when pulling the body out the water, and performing adequate warm-up and stretching activities.
Neck injuries from swimming include freestyle neck injuries that occur when the head is dramatically extended or rotated while taking a breath, or pressure on the anterior neck muscles from buoying the head during backstroke. In addition, thoracic outlet syndrome can occur, in which the nerves or blood vessels in the lower neck and upper chest become compressed or irritated. Neck injuries can be prevented by aligning the head with the spine during the freestyle stroke, looking straight down with the eyes to avoid arching the neck, avoiding lifting or over-rotating the head during inhalation, and gradually increasing training distance and duration to reduce overuse of the neck muscles.
Contact Manhattan Orthopedic Care for a consultation on treating or preventing common swimming injuries.
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