With ninety percent of the driving forces coming from the upper body, it is little surprise that swimmer’s shoulder is a common condition in swimming. The shoulder is a complex joint, and as swimming placed it under load, an appreciation of its function and limitations can help keep the body injury free. This is especially true for those who swim very regularly or have poor stroke technique, as they are most at risk.
Shoulder mobility as a strength and a weakness
Compared to other joints in the body, the shoulders and hips have an unparalleled range of motion. This is due both of them having ball and socket joints capable of a 360 degree conical movement. However, stability for each of these joints differs. The hip joint fits snugly like a ball in a glove, as the rounded head of the thigh bone, fits into the deep, cup shaped socket of the pelvis. Unlike the hip, the shoulder has a small flat socket about half the size of the ball, along with several other bones, plus a collection of muscles and tendons that support this wide range of motion. Although one of the largest and most complex joints in the body, its unique structure is also a weakness, as the shoulder accounts for up to 20% of all athletic injuries and is the most commonly dislocated joint in the body.
This balance between shoulder mobility and stability is put to the test during sports that require overhead motion. Racket sports such as tennis, or throwing sports like volleyball require two or three patterns of overhead movement. Swimming however, requires multiple overhead movement patterns and a steady conical 360 degree motion of the humerus, the bone of the upper arm. This bone fits into a socket of the scapula, more commonly known as the shoulder blade, which has a cuff of cartilage called the labrum. This ring of rubbery tissue helps keep the ball like head of the humerus in place.
As the humerus fits loosely into the shoulder joint compared to the hip, a collection of muscles and tendons known as the rotator cuff, provide support for raising and rotating the arm. To further aid fluid motion there is a small sac of fluid called a bursa that protects and cushions the rotator cuff tendons. It lies between the rotator cuff and the roof of the shoulder blade, which has two bony projections, the coracoid process and the acromion, which is above the bursa and attaches to the clavicle. Otherwise known as the collar bone, the clavicle, makes up one of three bones of the shoulder, the other two being the previously mentioned humerus and scapula. These three bones are connected to the shoulder by four joints, one being the ball and socket joint of the humerus and scapula, one for where the scapula meets the ribs at the back, and two for the clavicle which joins the scapula at one end and the chest bone at the other.
All of these structures have the potential to be injured, and as such swimmer’s shoulder can derive from a variety of sources. An appreciation of the forces at work upon the body during swimming, can provide a greater understanding of the root cause of swimmer’s shoulder.
The sources of swimmer’s shoulder
Good swimming technique requires a greater range of motion and flexibility of the shoulder compared to other sports and plays a major role in the upper body’s ability to provide locomotion. This placing of the shoulder under load, is further increased since swimming is performed in a fluid medium. As opposed to air, water creates greater resistance and forces upon the structures of the shoulder.
In one study, two thirds of the elite swimmers reported shoulder pain. In some cases swimmer’s shoulder can involve irritation to the tendons of the rotator cuff muscles, but it can also be due a range of painful shoulder overuse injuries such as impingement. This is where the shoulder blade’s bony point that joins with the collar bone, rubs on the rotor cuff and bursa. This can then lead to inflammation of the bursa, known as bursitis, or tendonitis.
The four tendons that make up the rotator cuff and one of the bicep tendons are most commonly affected by tendonitis, once again as a result of wear. Like with any other joint in the body, the ligaments, tendons, and muscles around the shoulder can tear or become loose. This can lead to instability in the shoulder and the chance of greater injury, such as a tear to the the ring of cartilage that holds the humerus in place, or dislocation. Also these areas can be affected by chronic conditions such as osteoarthritis.
The repeated overhead motion of the arm in swimming and pressures placed upon the shoulder joints in water, mean that immediate care of a newly acquired injury and preventative measures are essential. Seeking physiotherapy treatment can identify the exact area of injury, alleviate pain and then planning can be put into place to regain stability, strength and flexibility. For example a gym program with some simple strength and flexibility exercises can be easily prescribed. Through future self management of the swimmer’s shoulder condition there lies the opportunity to proactively train the body so as to minimise the risk of injury.
Managing shoulder health
First of all as with any inflammation injury, the PRICE principle should be applied to the shoulder. This is achieved by protecting the injured area, resting the shoulder, applying ice for 15-20 minutes every two to three hours, compression with a bandage and elevation of the arm above the level of the heart.
Once the area has recovered due to rest or treatment by a physiotherapist, and a strengthening plan has been devised for the injured area and surrounding structures, then it is time to venture back into the water. At this point advice from your physiotherapist, doctor should be taken and the help of a qualified swimming professional or experienced swimmer could ease the transition back to the pool.
After all investigating and understanding proper swimming stroke technique, could prevent a relapse of injury and aid in the rehabilitation of an recovered shoulder. It is also important to know the limits that a recovering shoulder can take, being sure to train conservatively so as to avoid tired muscles. This is also true for those who are injury free, as training at a limit within the body’s fitness level will maintain stability of the shoulder and aid correct function.
Prevention through correct technique
Swimmer’s shoulder can develop with all styles of swimming, with freestyle, backstroke and butterfly seen to be the most responsible for injury, as the arms circle overhead. Although the most gentle looking, breast stroke still places pressure on other parts of the body, and like the other styles, requires good technique to avoid injury. So an option could be to vary the types of swim stroke performed, as this can provide rest and recovery to muscles, joints and tendons that would otherwise be overworked. Refining the technique and building the strength of each swimming stroke style can also avoid other swimming conditions that effect the knees, neck and lower back.
In general terms there are four areas of swimming technique that can aid protection against shoulder injury. As with land based activities, good posture is essential, so keeping the shoulders back and the chest forward will help. Next is developing symmetrical body rotation, that is encouraged by a balanced left and right breathing pattern. This allows for better support to the rotator cuff and generates more power by engaging the muscles of the back and core.
Regarding the best practice for stroke technique, hand placement as the arm enters the water and the shape of the arm when pulling through the water, are also essential in injury avoidance. It is best to have a flat hand as it enters the water at the start of a stroke. This is fingertips first, rather than thumb whereby the arm is rotated outwards. Lastly as the hand then catches the water and pulls through, the elbow should be high so that the water is pushed back, rather than down when the elbow is dropped or the arm is very straight.
Does running accelerate the development of osteoarthritis?
There are so many misconceptions about running and how bad it can be for your joints. You may have heard many friends and family members comment on this and they may have even tried to convince you to stop running and go swimming instead. Here is what the scientific research tells us so far:
Osteoarthritis (OA) is a musculoskeletal condition that involves degeneration of the joints and impact during weightbearing exercise such as running and may contribute to joint loads. There is very little evidence however, that running causes OA in the knees or hips. One study reported in 1985 by Sohn and Micheli compared incidence of hip and knee pain and surgery over 25 years in 504 former cross-country runners. Only 0.8% of the runners needed surgery for OA in this time and the researchers concluded that moderate running (25.4 miles/week on average) was not associated with increased incidence of OA.
In another smaller study of 35 older runners and 38 controls with a mean age of 63 years, researchers looked at progression of OA over 5 years in the hands, lumbar spine and knees (Lane et al. 1993) . They used questionnaires and x-rays as measurement tools. In a span of 5 years, both groups had some participants who developed OA- but found that running did not increase the rate of OA in the knees. They reported that the 12% risk of developing knee OA in their group could be attributed to aging and not to running. In 2008, a group of researchers reported results from a longitudinal study in which 45 long distance runners and 53 non-runners were followed for 21 years. Assessment of their knee X-Rays, revealed that runners did not have a higher risk of developing OA than the non-running control group. They did note however, that the subjects with worse OA on x-ray also had higher BMI (Body Mass Index) and some early arthritic change in their knees at the outset of the study.
Is it better to walk than to run?
It is a common belief that it must be better to walk than to run to protect your joints. In a recent study comparing the effects of running and walking on the development of OA and hip replacement risk, the incidence of hip OA was 2.6% in the running group, compared with 4.7% in the walking group (Williams et al 2013). The percentage of walkers who eventually required a hip replacement was 0.7%, while in the running group, it was lower at 0.3%. Although the incidence is small, the authors suggest the chance of runners developing OA of the hip is less than walkers.
In the same study, Williams and colleagues reinforced that running actually helped keep middle-age weight gain down. As excess weight may correlate with increased risk of developing OA, running may reduce the risks of OA. The relationship between bodyweight and knee OA has been well-established in scientific studies, so running for fitness and keeping your weight under control is much less likely to wear out your knees than being inactive and carrying excess weight.
Is there a limit?
Recent studies have shown that we should be doing 30 minutes of moderate exercise daily to prevent cardiovascular disease and diabetes. But with running, researchers still have not established the exact dosage of runners that has optimal health effects. Hansen and colleagues’ review of the evidence to date reported that the current literature is inconclusive about the possible relationship about running volume and development of OA but suggested that physiotherapists can help runners by correcting gait abnormalities, treating injuries appropriately and encouraging them to keep the BMI down.
We still do not know how much is “too much” for our joints. However, we do know that with age, we expect degenerative changes to occur in the joints whether we run or not. Osteoarthritis is just as common as getting grey hair. The important thing is that we keep the joints as happy and healthy as possible.
How do you start running?
If you are not a runner and would like to start running, walking would be a good way to start and then work your way up to short running intervals and then longer intervals as you improve your fitness and allow time for your body to adapt. Therefore, running in general is not bad for the joints. It does not seem to increase our risk of developing OA in the hips and knees. But the way you run, the way you train and how fast you change your running frequency and distance may play a role in future injuries of the joints.
Knee pain can affect a large range of age groups, ranging from ‘growing’ pains experienced by young people to ‘arthritic’ pain in older persons, and everything in-between. In this Blog we will examine knee meniscus injuries, what causes them and how to treat these injuries.
What is the Meniscus of the Knee?
The meniscus are C-shaped structures in your knee joint which sit between your femur (or thigh bone) and your tibia (or shin bone). They are made of a type of cartilage called fibrocartilage, which is a little bit different to other form of cartilage in your knee called articular cartilage. Articular cartilage is often more affected with arthritis. Your knee has two menisci, the medial meniscus and lateral meniscus. The medial meniscus is located on the inside while the lateral meniscus is on the outside of your knee.
The menisci have a limited blood supply which rely on movement of the knee to keep it strong and healthy. The best thing you can do to prevent your meniscus from injury, is to keep active and keep the knee moving.
What does the Meniscus do?
The main role of the menisci is to help with absorbing and distributing forces through the knee joint. They work together with knee and hip muscles to act as a shock absorber when the knee is active. The menisci also increases the surface area of the knee joint, so it adds some extra stability to the knee.
How do you injure your meniscus?
The majority of meniscus injuries occur as people age (over 50 years). As you get older the limited blood supply to the meniscus becomes further reduced. As people age they develop wrinkles and grey hair. The aging process also occurs in the knee, the menisci begin to degenerate, lose some of their strength and become more prone to injury.
As the menisci become more susceptible to injury with age, the range and types of movements which can damage it become more prevalent. The majority of meniscus injuries occur when you twist your knee over a planted foot. – Sometimes it can be as simple, as turning to look over your shoulder or stepping off a ladder and putting weight on your foot and twisting your knee. You might notice the knee to slowly swell up.
Meniscus injuries in the younger ager group (under 30) are not as prevalent. Simple twisting movements to the knee are unlikely to cause menisci injury in younger persons. You are more likely to see menisci injuries occur with other knee injuries such as ligament damage caused through sport.
What should I do if I damage my meniscus?
So you have injured your knee and you are thinking, what to do next? Alternatively, you have had a scan on your knee and been diagnosed with a meniscus tear and wanting to know what is the best way to treat it?
A 2002 study involving people who had ‘degenerative’ menisci tears, compared the rehabilitation recovery rates of three groups. The first group had meniscus removal surgery (i.e. arthroscopic meniscectomy), the second experienced joint ‘wash-out’ (lavage) and third underwent ‘placebo’ surgery where the surgeon made skin incisions only. All groups undertook the same rehabilitation program. Amazingly they found no difference in between the 3 groups. All groups had the same levels of pain and function, and all improved at the same rate.
Since the initial 2002 study, further published studies have compared meniscus surgery with placebo surgery and physiotherapy treatment. These studies continue to confirm the same result, that is, there is no differences between all of the groups in terms of rehabilitation other than the surgery group having a higher cost of treatment!
The treatment for meniscus tears in the active, younger population (under 30) is more complex with some individuals needing surgery as soon as possible, while others can manage with physiotherapy and exercise.
What does this all mean?
Degenerative meniscus tears are more common as people age. In some cases people who not have any knee pain may have degenerative menisci and not be in any pain. In other words having a degenerative meniscus correlates poorly pain. The good news is, you might not need to have surgery at all if you are able to undertake a comprehensive physiotherapy rehabilitation program.
Will surgery provide you any benefits? Yes it will in the short term. However, arthroscopic meniscus surgery is associated with a ten-fold increase the risk of knee osteoarthritis.
Although most degenerative meniscus tears don’t need surgery, there are always some cases where surgery is going to be more effective than physiotherapy. Some menisci tears can either ‘stick-up’ into the joint or ‘break-off.’ In cases like these the tear can cause the knee to lock when trying to bend or straighten, and surgery is recommended to remove the tear.
What will my physiotherapist work on during my rehabilitation?
The first thing your physiotherapist will undertake is a full assessment of not only your knee, but your legs and even your back to see if you pain is coming from your meniscus or from somewhere else.
If you have hurt your meniscus recently your physiotherapist will start treatment aiming to reduce the swelling and begin to return it to its full range of movement.
If you have full range of movement and no swelling in your knee joint your physiotherapist will begin an exercise program focused on strengthening the muscles around your knee, and from around your hip. Weak quadriceps muscle has been found to place a greater load on your knee joint and your meniscus. Strengthening these muscle groups can reduce the pressure on the meniscus during movement. Weakness in your bottom (gluteal) muscles can also affect your knee function. Weakness in the gluteal muscles is known to place more load through the inside of the knee, which is where the majority of medial injuries occur. Strengthening the quadriceps and gluteal muscles will contribute to reducing the pressure on the knee.
Degenerative meniscus tears areas common as wrinkles and grey hair as you grow older. Although surgery is sometimes required for some knee injuries it often is not the only or best option in most cases. For most knee injuries involving the menisci the best anti-aging medicine is physical activity and exercise.
Physical Therapist’s Guide to Knee Pain
Knee pain can be caused by disease or injury. The most common disease affecting the knee is osteoarthritis. Knee injuries can occur as the result of a direct blow or sudden movement that strains the knee beyond its normal range of movement. Knee pain caused by an injury is most often associated with knee cartilage tears, such as meniscal tears, or ligament tears, such as anterior cruciate ligament tears.
What is Knee Pain?
Knee pain can be caused by disease or injury. Knee pain can restrict movement, affect muscle control in the sore leg, and reduce the strength and endurance of the muscles that support the knee.
The most common disease affecting the knee is osteoarthritis, which is caused by the cartilage in the knee gradually wearing away, resulting in pain and swelling.
Knee injuries can occur as the result of a direct blow or sudden movement that strains the knee beyond its normal range of motion, as can happen in sports, recreational activities, a fall, or a motor vehicle accident. Knee pain caused by an injury often is associated with tears in the knee cartilage or ligaments. Knee pain also can be the result of repeated stress, as often occurs with the kneecap, also known as patellofemoral pain syndrome. Very rarely, with extreme trauma, a bone may break at the knee.
How Does it Feel?
You may feel knee pain in different parts of your knee joint, depending on the problem affecting you. Identifying the location of your pain can help your physical therapist determine its cause.
How Is It Diagnosed?
Your physical therapist will make a diagnosis based on your symptoms, medical history, and a thorough examination. X-ray and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) results may also be used to complete the diagnosis.
To help diagnose your condition, your physical therapist may ask you questions like these:
•Where exactly on your knee is the pain?
•Did you twist your knee?
•Did you feel a “tearing” sensation at the time of injury?
•Do you notice swelling?
•Have you ever felt like your knee joint is “catching,” or “locking,” or will give way?
•Do you have difficulty walking up and down stairs?
•Do you have difficulty sitting with your knee bent for long periods, as on an airplane or at the movies?
•Does your pain increase when you straighten or bend your knee?
•Does your knee hurt if you have to twist or turn quickly?
The physical therapist will perform tests to find out whether you have:
•Pain or discomfort with bending or straightening your knee
•Tenderness at the knee joint
•Limited motion in your knee
•Weakness in the muscles around your knee
•Difficulty putting weight on your knee when standing or walking
The physical therapist also is concerned about how well you are able to use your injured knee in daily life. To assess this, the therapist may use such tests as a single-limb hop test, a 6-minute walk test, or a timed up and go test.
How Can a Physical Therapist Help?
Based on the evaluation, your physical therapist will develop a customized rehabilitation program, including a specific set of knee exercises, for you.
If you already have knee problems, your physical therapist can help with a plan of exercise that will strengthen your knee without increasing the risk of injury or further damage. As a general rule, you should choose gentle exercises such as swimming, aquatic exercise, or walking rather than jarring exercises such as jogging or high-impact aerobics.
Consult your physical therapist about specific ways to maintain your knee health following injury or surgery. Your physical therapist has the relevant educational background and expertise to evaluate your knee health and to refer you to another health care provider if necessary.
Depending on the severity of your knee problem, your age, and your lifestyle, the therapist may select such treatments as:
Strength training and functional exercises, which are designed to increase strength, endurance, and function of your leg muscles (quadriceps and hamstrings). This in turn helps support the knee and reduce stress to the knee joint.
Your physical therapist can determine just how much you may need to limit physical activity involving the affected knee. He or she also can gauge your knee’s progress in function during your rehabilitation.
How Can a Physical Therapist Help Before & After Surgery?
Your physical therapist, in consultation with your surgeon, will be able to tell you how much activity you can do depending on the type of knee surgery (such as total knee replacement) you undergo. Your therapist and surgeon also might have you participate in physical therapy prior to surgery to increase your strength and motion. This can sometimes help with recovery after surgery.
Following surgery, your physical therapist will design a personalized rehabilitation program for you and help you gain the strength, movement, and endurance you need to return to performing the daily activities you did before.
Can this Injury or Condition be Prevented?
Ideally, everyone should regularly get 3 types of exercise to prevent injury to all parts of the body, including the knees:
•Range-of-motion exercises to help maintain normal joint movement and relieve stiffness.
•Strengthening exercises to keep or increase muscle strength.
•Aerobic or endurance exercises (such as walking or swimming) to improve function of the heart and circulation and to help control weight. Weight control can be important to people who have arthritis because extra weight puts pressure on many joints, including the knee.
To keep knee pain and other musculoskeletal pain at bay, it’s important to maintain an overall healthy lifestyle, exercise, get adequate rest, and eat healthy foods. It’s also important for runners and other athletes to perform physical therapist-approved stretching and warm-up exercises on a daily basis—especially before beginning physical activity.
Real Life Experiences
At age 56, Monica was in very good health—eating right, maintaining her weight, and exercising daily at home. One day she fell off her exercise equipment and twisted her knee. The pain was excruciating. Even though she could walk short distances, using her sore leg during her daily activities soon became impossible. Monica made an appointment with her physical therapist. The therapist reviewed her medical history, conducted a thorough examination, and consulted with Monica’s physician regarding the need for a series of X-rays to ensure no bones were broken in the fall.
Consultation with an orthopedic surgeon confirmed that there were no broken bones and no need for surgery. Monica’s physical therapist developed a program of strength training and functional exercises to increase her hip, knee, and ankle muscle strength and endurance. The physical therapist also recommended electrical stimulation of the knee to increase her quadriceps (thigh) muscle strength.
By following the physical therapist’s regimen, Monica decreased her knee pain, and her mobility improved dramatically. Regular ongoing strength-training knee exercises—and more careful use of her exercise equipment—have helped Monica remain free of knee pain.
What Kind of Physical Therapist Do I Need?
Although all physical therapists are prepared through education and experience to treat people with knee pain, you may want to consider:
•A physical therapist who is experienced in treating people with orthopedic, or musculoskeletal, problems
•A physical therapist who is a board-certified clinical specialist or who has completed a residency or fellowship FCAMPT in orthopedic physical therapy, giving the therapist advanced knowledge, experience, and skills that may apply to your condition
General tips when you’re looking for a physiotherapist:
•Get recommendations from family and friends or from other health care providers.
•When you contact a physical therapy clinic for an appointment, ask about the physical therapist’s experience in helping people with TKR.
During your first visit with the physical therapist, be prepared to describe your symptoms in as much detail as possible, and say what makes your symptoms worse.