Let’s start by talking about the muscle groups in your shoulder and how they function. The term “Rotator cuff”, might suggest a singular body part but your rotator cuff is actually four muscles working together to move and support the arm. Swimmer’s Shoulder is used to describe inflammation that can occur in any of these muscle groups as a result of overuse, or misuse. Most commonly, it affects the gap between the bone that sits on top of your shoulder (the acromion) and the muscle connecting your upper arm to your torso. Swelling in this area narrows that gap, pinching the tendon between the muscle and the acromion and causing discomfort and pain.
Swimmer’s shoulder is a repetitive stress injury. During a swimmer’s workout, you can put each arm through thousands of strokes. Stress injuries due to overuse, misuse or poor technique mean that shoulder is being put through the same discomfort over and over! Gradually this kind of misuse leads to swelling of the muscles and the following symptoms:
Pain radiating from the front of the shoulder to the side of the arm
Sudden pain when lifting or reaching
Minor pain present, even at rest.
Many individuals who are affected by shoulder inflammation also note pain when lying down in bed.
Preventing Swimmer’s Shoulder
Repetitive stress injuries are typically caused by a lapse in technique, though a sudden increase in your training regimen could also be at fault. Listen to your body and to let it rest when it gets tired. It is also important to analyze your swimming. Tape your work out, or have someone else watch you, and look for the following:
Is your chest rotating enough?
The arm isn’t built to rotate with your chest flat to the water. Rotating out will allow the correct muscle groups to function properly.
Is your hand going into the water properly?
Make sure your hand is facing the water and that your fingertips enter first. Over-rotating the arm so that the thumb goes in first places additional strain on the rotator cuff.
Is your arm bent during the pull-through?
Keeping the elbow at a good angle under the water engages more powerful muscle groups that support the arm better, and keep extra strain off the shoulder.
Be sure to include proper warm-ups and cool-downs in your work-out! Failing to stretch before and after a workout is another leading factor of athletic injuries. Taking good care of your body is the best way to keep it happy and healthy.
Taking Care of Swimmer’s Shoulder
If you catch the inflammation early then ice, ibuprofen, and rest may be all you need to calm it down. If this isn’t enough, you should make an appointment with your doctor to have your shoulder evaluated. The Doctor may recommend physical therapy and in some cases surgery. A physical therapist will treat the inflammation and offer exercises that rebuild support in the shoulder, and help prevent future relapse. Waiting too long to address swimmer’s shoulder can result in structural damage to the shoulder, which could require surgery to correct. So listen to your body! It’s always better to prevent an injury than to have to treat it.
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