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.
Okay. So you’ve decided to embark on a fitness regime in order to shed some kilo’s, get fit or just for fun. New gym membership. Check. New sparkling runners. Check. Gym gear (a bit tight at the moment). Check. Alright, let me at that treadmill/rower/crosstrainer/zumba class!
“Hold on a second – what about your warm-up!”
“Warm-up” you scoff, “you’ve got to be kidding. No time to waste on that”.
Sorry folks, but the warm-up is an important part of your exercise routine and plays a crucial role in preparing your body for exercise. Skimp on the warm-up and you run the risk of injury during exercise or sport, as well as reduced performance levels.
“But what’s so important about doing a few stretches?” I hear you ask.
A proper warm-up involves more than just standing around stretching and talking. It prepares your body for the exercise/sport it is about to undertake and should simulate the actions involved.
The benefits of a warm-up are:
1) Increase in core body temperature
2) Preparation of muscles, tendons and joints for the stresses/strains of activity
3) Increase in nerve impulse conduction to muscles
4) Increase in blood flow to muscles
5) Increase in respiratory (breathing) rate
Let’s have a closer look at each of these benefits.
1. Increased core body temperature – this is important as it prepares the body for the change in activity level from being sedentary to exercising and gets the body into a ‘ready’ state. This also results in an increase in muscle temperature which makes them more pliable, supple and loose.
2. Prepares muscles, tendons and joints for activity – each sporting activity stresses the body in different ways so it is vital to prepare in a way that simulates these activities. For example, if you are a basketballer you need to include in your warm-up the jumping, running and change of direction that occurs during the game. If you pump weights at the gym, it is vital to perform a warm-up set of each exercise at a lower weight to allow your body to adjust to each specific movement.
3. Increased nerve conduction – muscles that are in a ready or aroused state react quicker and more efficiently than muscles that aren’t prepared for activity.
4. Increased blood flow to muscles – through increased blood flow there is an increase in oxygen flow to muscles as well as nutrient flow. This increased flow allows for improved performance
5. Increased respiratory rate – prepares the lungs for an increase in activity level and improves oxygenation of the blood flowing to the muscles.
Okay, so now that we know why we are performing a warm-up, what should it involve?
One common misconception out there these days is the importance of stretching as part of a warm-up. Note I said part of a warm-up.
Stretching on its own does not constitute a warm-up – rather it forms a critical part of one.
An effective warm-up has a number of very important key elements, which work together to minimize the likelihood of sports injury and prepare the individual for physical activity.
These key elements are:
1) The general warm-up
2) Static stretching
3) Sport specific warm-up
4) Dynamic stretching
1. The general warm-up
This consists of light physical activity such as walking, jogging, easy swimming, stationary bike, skipping or easy aerobics. The intensity and duration of the general warm-up is dictated by the fitness level of the participating athlete. For the average person, this part of the warm-up should last between 5 and 10 minutes and result in a light sweat.
2. Static stretching
Yes! Static stretching. This is a very safe and effective form of basic stretching. There is a limited threat of injury and is beneficial for overall flexibility. All the major muscle groups should be included for a period of 5 to 10 minutes.
Debate has raged about whether static stretching should be part of a warm-up and some studies have shown that static stretching can have an adverse effect on muscle contraction speed and therefore performance. It is for this reason that static stretching is performed early in the warm-up and always followed by sports specific drills and dynamic stretching. It is important these first two elements are completed properly as it allows the more vigorous and specific activities of elements three and four to then be performed.
3. Sport specific warm-up
In this part, you are specifically preparing the body for the demands of your particular sport or activity. During this part of the warm-up, more vigorous activities should be employed. Activities should reflect the type of movements and actions which will be required during the activity.
4. Dynamic stretching
Finally the warm-up should finish with a series of dynamic stretches. Caution should be taken with this form of stretching as it involves controlled, soft bouncing or swinging motions to take a particular body part past it’s normal range of motion. The force or the bounce of the swing is gradually increased but should never become radical or uncontrolled. These exercises should also be specific to the sport or activity.
Another important factor to keep in mind when undertaking any new exercise regime, is the time it takes for the body to adapt to training. If you have had a period of time away from sport or activity, then your body won’t be used to the stresses and strains put on it from exercise. It can take up to 4 to 6 weeks for your muscles, tendons and joints to become adjusted to the movements involved in your sport or activity.
During this period it is advisable to start with low to moderate intensity exercise which gradually builds over time. Heading straight up the red or blue arrow as your first exercise session in 3 or 4 months isn’t a great idea. Starting out with flat walks or jogging and gradually increasing time and intensity is a better way to start. After 4 to 6 weeks you will be at the stage where you can tackle more intense sessions.
The same goes for weight training. Starting with lighter weights and more repetitions will allow your tendons and joints in particular, to adapt to lifting load. Going too heavy too soon can lead to tendon injuries or severe muscle and joint soreness.
Lateral epicondylalgia or tennis elbow is the most common cause of musculoskeletal
pain located near the elbow. It is commonly known as tennis elbow as it can be a significant problem amongst tennis players. However, you do not need to play tennis to have experienced this injury. It is reported that approximately 40% of people will experience this type of pain at some point in their life and it usually presents in males or females aged between 35 and 54. Lateral epicondylalgia is an injury to the forearm muscles that act to extend the wrist and fingers. The point of injury occurs at the site where the muscle attaches to the bone near the elbow.
What causes tennis elbow?
Lateral epicondylalgia is usually caused by an overload of the forearm extensor muscles where the load is more than what normal muscle tissue can handle. Associated neck or shoulder pain may also contribute to the presentation. Common causes or activities can include:
Poor technique during sports or other activities i.e. racquet sports
Manual workers with jobs involving repetitive gripping and hand tasks
Office workers with jobs involving repetitive use of the keyboard and mouse
Symptoms of lateral epicondylalgia include tenderness over the side of the elbow and pain with activities involving gripping or wrist extension. There may also be areas of tightness through the forearms and pain when the involved muscles are stretched. Your physiotherapist will be able to diagnose this condition based on physical examination and gathering a complete history of your injury. Your physiotherapist may also send you for medical imaging scans to assist in ruling out other causes of elbow pain including muscle tears, ligament injury and elbow instability or pain that is originating from the neck.
The goals of treatment are to reduce pain, promote healing and decrease the amount of stress applied to the elbow. Also, to restore full strength and movement of the elbow and wrist. Early treatment may include:
Rest from aggravating activities
Exercise programs involving gradual strengthening and stretching
Massage and other soft tissue techniques
Taping to reduce load on the muscle and tendon
Acupuncture or dry needling
Once pain levels have decreased, physiotherapy will involve prescription of more difficult or specific strengthening exercises and correction of any predisposing biomechanical or technique problems. These are essential to prevent future aggravation and shorten recovery time.
Braces are available which are designed to assist in alleviating pain by reducing the amount of stress on the tendon. However, not all people will benefit from using a brace. Your physiotherapist will be able to guide you through all stages of rehabilitation.
Elite and competitive swimmers log between 60,000 and 80,000 meters weekly — swimming the length of an Olympic-sized pool 1,200 times — which places significant stress on their shoulder joints. “The upper body provides 90 percent of the propulsive force to move through the water. Due to the amount of force generated and the range of motion required to swim efficiently, the shoulder needs to have perfect mechanics to avoid injury,” says Dr. Elizabeth Matzkin, lead study author of a literature review in the August issue of Journal of the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons and assistant professor of orthopaedic surgery at Harvard Medical School.
Swimming is an endurance sport but “swimmer’s shoulder” — a broad non-medical term often used to describe a variety of shoulder injuries — can affect swimmers at all levels. According to the literature review authors, many shoulder injuries are preventable with proper technique, training, stretching, and strengthening.
Shoulder pain affects 40 to 91 percent of competitive swimmers. Overuse and poor shoulder mechanics can cause muscle imbalances, decreased range of motion of the shoulder, and less efficient swim strokes, all placing athletes at greater risk for further injury. The most common swimming-related injuries include:
Impingement — As swimmers becomes fatigued, the pectoralis muscles (commonly known as “pecs”) compensate for tired muscles, which can cause the peak of the shoulder blade to rub (impinge) against the rotator cuff (tendon and bursa), stress the anterior (front of the body) ligaments, and create tears in the tissue that holds the top of the arm bone in place.
Scapular dyskinesis — Intense, repetitive rotation of the shoulder blade over the chest wall can overstretch and loosen the upper back muscles that keep the shoulder bones in a healthy position. Abnormal shoulder mechanics (scapula dyskinesis) can cause pain near the collarbone when the upper chest muscles tighten to compensate for the loosened upper back muscles.
Glenohumeral internal rotation deficit (GIRD) — Intense, repetitive rotation of the shoulder blade can cause the front shoulder ligaments to overstretch and loosen. This can cause the soft tissues and muscles in the back to tighten to compensate for the loosened front shoulder muscles while limiting the internal rotation of the shoulders, which puts swimmers at greater risk for rotator cuff tears. Swimmers must maintain some shoulder looseness to remain competitive. However, about 20 percent of competitive swimmers have hyperlaxity — the ability of joints to move beyond the normal range of motion — which increases the likelihood of greater shoulder instability and susceptibility to pain.
Possible and often subtle signs of shoulder injuries among swimmers may include:
A dropped elbow during the recovery phase of the freestyle stroke.
Excessive body roll, which may signify shoulder pain.
Drooping of the affected shoulder.
“Injury prevention is best accomplished by proper training. Most importantly, swimmers need to stretch, especially the posterior shoulder capsule, and avoid muscle imbalance by strengthening both the rotator cuff and the scapular stabilizer muscle groups,” says Dr. Matzkin. When a swimmer experiences shoulder pain, a thorough physical examination is important to diagnose the source of the pain, whether there is atrophy in the shoulder or reduced strength in the shoulder joint.
Treatment may include nonsurgical (e.g., a combination of ice, stretching, and anti-inflammatory medication, focused rehabilitation to reduce pain) or surgical (e.g., for structural injuries to manage pain rather than to enhance athletic performance) options to potentially prevent future injuries.
Elizabeth Matzkin, Kaytelin Suslavich, David Wes. Swimmer’s Shoulder. Journal of the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons, 2016; 24 (8): 527 DOI: 10.5435/JAAOS-D-15-00313