Shoulder injuries are thought to affect between 40% to 91% of professional swimmers. This isn’t a surprising statistic considering that competitive swimmers, training for a number of hours, six or seven days a week, will perform many thousands of shoulder revolutions and this continuous movement places great strain upon the joint.
However, while the risk of developing a shoulder injury due to overuse is high for competitive swimmers, studies show there are ways to minimise the risk. In particular, stretching could be the key to prevention.
What is Swimmers Shoulder?
The term Swimmers Shoulder actually relates to a range of different shoulder injuries. Most commonly caused by overusing the shoulders, the types of injuries that can occur are diverse and vary in severity. Three of the most common injuries you are exposed to as a swimmer include:
1. Rotator cuff impingement/tendonitis
The rotator cuff is responsible for keeping your arm within the socket. Made up of numerous tendons and muscles, the rotator cuff is one of the most commonly injured parts of the shoulder.
Rotator cuff impingement occurs when the acromion part of the shoulder rubs against the muscle, causing pain and irritation. It occurs when the arm is lifted to shoulder height. Rotator cuff tendonitis is diagnosed when the tendons are damaged or irritated.
2. Scapular Dyskinesia
This condition occurs when the muscles of the upper back are overstretched and loose. Responsible for keeping the bones of the shoulder in position, the upper back muscles can be affected when the shoulder blade is repetitively rotated. To compensate, the muscles of the upper chest tighten and cause intense pain around the collarbone area.
3. Shoulder instability
In severe Swimmers Shoulder injuries, the joint may become loose or disconnect from the socket completely. This is referred to as shoulder instability.
When you consider that 90% of the force required to push the body through the water is provided by the upper body, you soon realise how vulnerable the shoulders are. There are several muscles and tendons within the shoulder joint and any of them can suffer damage from excessive or incorrect use.
Why stretching is key to preventing shoulder injuries
One of the main reasons swimmers develop shoulder injuries is because of improper training. Due to how much pressure the shoulders are put under in the water, it’s vital they are as strong and healthy as possible. Stretching the muscles prior to getting in the pool is an important key factor in ensuring they stay strong and resistant to injury.
In particular, the posterior shoulder capsule needs to be stretched, along with the scapula stabiliser and rotator cuff muscles. This helps to prevent muscle imbalance, as highlighted by a study published by the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons.
A stretching and strengthening routine will significantly reduce the risk of injury, though it is impossible to fully eliminate the risk entirely. If any pain is noticed in the shoulder area, it should be assessed thoroughly as quickly as possible to prevent it from becoming more severe.
Overall, it is estimated that around one-third of top-level, competitive swimmers suffer with a shoulder injury which prevents them from training. If you want to avoid swimmers shoulder, then stretching and proper training technique is vital.
‘Swimmers Shoulder’, lecture by Mr Ali Narvani of the London Shoulder Specialists at Fortius Clinic