Swimmers are more vulnerable to developing shoulder pain than athletes who aren’t involved in overhead sports, according to a new study published in The American Journal of Sports Medicine.
Researchers studied a cohort of competitive swimmers over the course of an intensive 12-week training season and found that swimmers experience a 15% increase in forward shoulder posture compared to an approximately 1% increase in those that participate in non-overhead sports. There was also a substantial decrease in subacromial space distance in comparison.
“Swimmers have a lot of pain during training season and this [study] validates some of where that pain is coming from,” Elizabeth E. Hibberd, assistant professor at the University of Alabama and the Director of Athletic Training Research Laboratory, explains. “Over the course of the training season, they are getting these adaptions in their physical characteristics, predisposing them to injury.”
Swimmer’s shoulder is a common injury experienced by professional swimmers, affecting both men and women alike. Here we’ll look at why swimmers are more vulnerable to developing shoulder pain and the types of injuries which can occur.
Why are swimmers more vulnerable?
Unlike other sports, swimmers require a high endurance level of the upper extremity. The upper body is responsible for approximately 90% of the propulsive force involved in swimming, with the shoulders absorbing the majority of the pressure.
Shoulder pain and injury typically develops due to a combination of the overuse of the shoulders and leaving little rest time for the muscles to recover. It’s thought that competitive swimmers can swim six to eight miles each day, sometimes up to seven days a week. The constant movement of the muscles and joint, along with the mechanical characteristics involved in swimming, put an enormous amount of pressure onto the shoulders.
The shoulder joint is also particularly prone to instability and it isn’t difficult to see why shoulder injuries are the most common orthopaedic injury reported by competitive swimmers. In a recent review of published literature on musculoskeletal injuries in swimmers, the prevalence of shoulder injuries runs from between 40% and a staggering 91%.
Injuries can occur due to one or a combination of the following:
- Over training
- Tightness of the joint
- Poor technique
- The use of hand paddles
- Previous shoulder injury
Professional swimmers therefore, are much more likely to develop shoulder injuries due to the amount of time they spend training.
Majority of swimmers believe mild to moderate shoulder pain is normal
Due to the amount of time swimmers spend in the water, most believe mild to moderate shoulder pain is normal. However, this mindset can prevent the swimmer from seeking help quickly enough when they’ve suffered an injury.
As they don’t recognise that they do have a shoulder injury, many swimmers also try to treat the pain themselves using pain medication. The trouble with this is, as the injury is left untreated, it will become worse the longer it is left undiagnosed. This leads to more time out of the pool and can seriously damage a professional swimmer’s career.
Can swimmer’s shoulder be prevented?
Further research is required to establish which intervention methods would be most effective for swimmers. While you can never completely eliminate the risk of shoulder injury, there are ways you can reduce the risk. These include:
- Building up the muscles of the shoulder to make the joint more stable and less prone to injury.
- Always use the correct stroke technique.
- Ensure you seek a diagnosis quickly if you experience any form of shoulder pain.
What is known is that it is really important to have the injury diagnosed as soon as possible. If you wait before seeking help, it’s likely inflammation will have developed and the pain will be more widespread, making it difficult to make a precise diagnosis. Inflammation masks the symptoms, making it more difficult to pinpoint the exact injury. That’s when a broad ‘swimmer’s shoulder’ diagnosis is made.
Overall, swimmers shoulder is a common injury which plagues professional swimmers. It is vital that proper techniques and training are undertaken to prevent the risk and a fast diagnosis is made if injury does occur.