Swimming is well-known for being a low-impact sport, as water density puts less pressure on your joints and muscles. This is what makes swimming a popular sport amongst those recovering from injuries, the elderly, and those starting their (fitness journey)! However, because swimming is physical activity, swimmers can still experience injuries if they aren’t careful.
The most common reason for swimming injuries have to do with improper stroke technique. With the repetitive nature of swimming, if a stroke is performed incorrectly over and over again, muscles and joints can end up suffering. Swimmers, especially competitive swimmers, can experience injuries due to technique. An average high school competitive swimmer can perform up to 2 million strokes a year. Because of overuse or fatigue, it’s easy to get distracted from making sure you execute the proper technique.
Read on to learn about some of the most common swimming injuries, how they are caused, and how to prevent them.
1. Swimmer’s Shoulder
The shoulder is the joint most commonly affected by swimming injuries or overuse, especially from bad technique while freestyle swimming. The rotating arm movements involved in most swimming techniques can cause significant strain for arm and shoulder muscles. Without regulation, the repetition of these motions can cause tissue damage.
The shoulder blade (or scapula) continuously puts pressure on the rotator cuff as the arm is lifted. This may cause rotator cuff impingement. A weak rotator cuff can disrupt shoulder stability and cause other injuries such as bicep tendinitis, a painful inflammation of the bicep tendon. Due to fatigue, the structures that surround the shoulder joint may not work to maintain the ball within its socket.
To avoid these injuries, it is important to do a thorough warm-up before jumping into the pool. Learning the proper methods for preparing the shoulders and knowing proper swimming technique can greatly minimize the potential for injuries over time.
2. Neck Injuries
Although arms appear to do most of the work, swimming can cause significant strain on the neck as well. This is primarily due to the contortion involved in keeping the head above the water during the breaststroke, or rotating the neck to breathe during the freestyle stroke.
To prevent neck injury - a swimmer must always keep their head aligned with their spine (and the rest of the body) while swimming. Instead of twisting the neck to breathe, rotate the entire body. Ultimately, honing this technique to eliminate potentially damaging neck movement is the best preventative measure for this common swimming injury.
3. Breaststroke Swimmer’s Knee
The breaststroke is a comfortable and relatively relaxed stroke in recreational environments. However, in more competitive settings, the breaststroke can be physically demanding. Knee injuries due to continuous kicking can commonly arise in the tendons and ligaments. By facing the feet out during the breaststroke, swimmers may inadvertently impact the ligaments in the knee. This generally causes swelling, knee pain, and inflammation, among other symptoms, leading to issues with the medial collateral ligament. Breaststrokers may also experience hip pain from inflammation of the hip tendons.
To prevent these injuries, avoid exercise sessions that consist only of the breaststroke. Instead, it is recommended that swimmers vary their routine by practicing other strokes. Warm-ups and exercises to improve hip abduction angle (the angle at which the legs move away from the hip) will also help prevent unnecessary knee stress. Consider strengthening the knees via gym and other exercises.
4. Swimmer’s Ear
Swimmer’s ear is primarily contracted after swimming in water with high bacteria levels and can cause quite a bit of discomfort. Common symptoms are itching or sensitive outer ear ares, clogged ear canals and, of course, muffled hearing. Swimmer's ear should not be taken lightly as mild cases can get worse.
To prevent this, try to keep your ears dry while swimming. This can be done by using a swimming cap or ear plugs. If they should get wet, dry them out thoroughly using a towel whilst tilting your head or pulling your ears to help loosen any water that may have gotten stuck. Always avoid swimming in potentially unclean bodies of water.
Like all exercise, the best way to prevent injury is to rest. Lessen repetitive strokes that cause overuse and listen to when your body needs to take a break. Clear communication between the athlete and parent, their coach, and a medical professional is critical to both swimming injury prevention and successful recovery.
For More Tips on Preventing Injuries:
Get the help of a swim teacher or coach to make sure you are executing the proper technique with each swimming stroke. Check our Classes tab for more information!