What is Swimmers Shoulder?

By Jo Ann
Self Help

Swimmer’s shoulder is an umbrella term covering a range of painful shoulder overuse injuries that occur in swimmers. Because there are various parts of your shoulder that can be injured from your swimming stroke, your pain can be anything from a local pain near the shoulder joint, to a spreading pain that travels up your shoulder and neck or down into your arm. Being an overuse injury, it is caused by repeated trauma rather than a specific incident. Over 1/3 of top level swimmers experience shoulder pain that prevents them from normal training.

Shoulder Anatomy:

Your shoulder is a ball and socket joint, with a rim of cartilage that goes around the socket to make it deeper and more stable.

Surrounding the joint is your joint capsule, a fibrous material, with thicker parts of the capsule forming ligaments.

A number of muscles, and the tendons from these muscles, run around and over your joint. The muscles that have the most effect on your joint stability are called the rotator cuff. The ‘cuff’ is made up of four muscles which work together to help keep your shoulder centred in the socket.

What Goes Wrong in Swimmers Shoulder?

The shoulder is a very mobile joint, and being so mobile, it needs to be well controlled by the muscles and ligaments that surround the joint. Over-training, fatigue, hypermobility, poor stroke technique, weakness, tightness, previous shoulder injury or use of hand paddles can lead to your muscles and ligaments being overworked. If this goes on, injuries such as rotator cuff impingement and tendonitis, rotator cuff tears, bursitis, capsule and ligament damage, or cartilage damage can occur.

Diagnosis of Swimmers Shoulder:

Getting the correct diagnosis is very important in order to get the best treatment, and to get you back in the pool quicker. 

Treatment for Swimmers Shoulder:

Swimmers shoulder is a common complaint that I see and it is unfortunately an injury that often recurs if you return to swimming too quickly – especially if a thorough rehabilitation program is not completed.

Your rotator cuff is an important group of control and stability muscles that maintain “centralisation” of your shoulder joint. In other words, it keeps the shoulder ball centred over the small socket. This prevents injuries such as bursitis,  impingement, subluxations and dislocations.

We also know that your rotator cuff provides subtle glides and slides of the ball joint on the socket to allow full shoulder movement. Plus, your shoulder blade (scapular) has a vital role as the main dynamically stable base plate that attaches your arm to your chest wall.

7 Stages to Rehabilitate:

Phase 1: Early Injury Protection: Pain Relief & Anti-inflammatory Tips

As with most soft tissue injuries the initial treatment is RICE - Rest, Ice, Compression and Elevation. In the early phase you’ll most likely be unable to fully lift your arm or sleep comfortably. Your first aim is to take some active rest from pain-provoking postures and movement. This means that you should stop doing the movement or activity that provoked the shoulder pain in the first place and avoid doing anything that causes pain in your shoulder.

You may need to wear a sling or have your shoulder taped to provide pain relief. In some cases it may mean that you need to sleep relatively upright or with pillow support. Ice is a simple and effective modality to reduce your pain and swelling. Please apply for 20-30 minutes each 2 to 4 hours during the initial phase or when you notice that your injury is warm or has a hot spot.

Anti-inflammatory medication (if tolerated) and natural substances eg arnica may help reduce your pain and swelling. Turmeric and Pepper can help reduce inflammation. However, it is best to avoid anti-inflammatory drugs during the initial 48 to 72 hours when they may encourage additional bleeding. Most people can tolerate paracetamol as a pain reducing medication. Seek advice if required.

As you improve, supportive taping will help to both support the injured soft tissue and reduce excessive swelling I recommend Rocktaping and if required ridged tape can be placed over it.

Cupping, can loosen muscles, encourage blood flow to release stagnation, and sedate the nervous system to reduce pain and promote relaxation. Myotherapy, Trigger point release around surrounding areas will help with freedom of movement. All these can help to assist you during this painful phase.


Phase 2: Regain Full Range of Motion

If you protect your injured rotator cuff structures appropriately the injured tissues will heal. Inflamed structures eg (tendonitis, bursitis) will settle when protected from additional damage.

Symptoms related to swimmers shoulder may take several weeks to improve while we await Mother Nature to work her wonders. During this time it is important to create an environment that allows you to return to normal use quickly and prevent a recurrence.

It is important to lengthen and orientate your healing scar tissue via joint mobilisationsmassageshoulder muscle stretches, and light active-assisted and active exercises.

Researchers have concluded that physiotherapist-assisted treatment will improve your range of motion quicker and, in the long-term, improve your functional outcome.

In most cases, you will also have developed short or long-term protective tightness of your joint capsule (usually posterior) and some compensatory muscles. These structures need to be stretched to allow normal movement.

Signs that you have full soft tissue extensibility includes being able to move your shoulder through a full range of motion. In the early stage, this may need to be passively (by someone else) . As you improve you will be able to do this under your own muscle power.


Phase 3: Restore Scapular Control

Your shoulder blade (scapular) is the base of your shoulder and arm movements.

Normal shoulder blade-shoulder movement - known as scapulo-humeral rhythm - is required for a pain-free and powerful shoulder function.

Alteration of this movement pattern results in impingement and subsequent injury.

Researchers have identified poor scapulo-humeral rhythm as a major cause of rotator cuff impingement. Any deficiencies will be an important component of your rehabilitation.

The correct position for the scapula (shoulder blade) is back and rotated down. Essentially, this means maintaining a good 'military posture', with shoulders back and Steinem out.

A round-shouldered or hunched posture is to be avoided at all times.

To achieve the correct scapular position, you need to use your  mid and lower trapezius muscles to retract the shoulder and pull the scapula down medially. However, it is also important not to dip the acromion, so your upper trapezius and serratus anterior muscle also play an important scapular positioning role, otherwise you will be likely to suffer rotator cuff impingement or future rotator cuff tears.

When you perform any upper body weight training exercise, always get into the habit of starting with good upper body posture and pinching the shoulder blades together. You should feel that the scapula is a solid platform which keeps the shoulder correctly positioned while you perform the exercise.

What you might find is that exercises that were painful, will not be painful if you stabilise your scapula correctly. In effect, by using the scapular muscles you can achieve better shoulder mechanics and avoid injury.

Correct scapular stability is difficult to learn and demands a great deal of practice and concentration. You first need to understand what the correct position is, and often this requires a physiotherapist to guide you. Then, during your training sessions, instruction and observation from a trainer can help you achieve and maintain the correct shoulder position.


Phase 4: Restore Normal Neck-Scapulo-Thoracic-Shoulder Function

You may find it difficult to comprehend, but your neck and upper back (thoracic spine) are very important in the rehabilitation of shoulder pain and injury.

Neck or spine dysfunction can not only refer pain directly to your shoulder, but it can effect a nerve’s electrical energy supplying your muscles causing weakness and altered movement patterns.

Plus, painful spinal structures form poor posture or injury doesn’t provide your shoulder or scapular muscles with a solid pain-free base to act upon.

In most cases, especially chronic shoulders, some treatment directed at your neck or upper back will be required to ease your pain, improve your shoulder movement and stop pain or injury returning.


Phase 5: Restore Rotator Cuff Strength

It may seem odd that you don’t attempt to restore the strength of your rotator cuff until a later stage in the rehabilitation. However, if a structure is injured we need to provide nature with an opportunity to undertake primary healing before we load the structures with anti-gravity and resistance exercises.

Having said that, researchers have discovered the importance of strengthening the rotator cuff muscles in a successful rehabilitation program. These exercises need to be progressed in both load and position to accommodate for which specific rotator cuff tendons are injured and whether or not you have a secondary condition such as bursitis.


Phase 6: Restore Technique, Speed, Power & Agility

Swimming requires repetitive arm actions, which place enormous forces on your body (contractile and non-contractile).

In order to prevent a recurrence as you return to swimming, you need exercises to address these important components of rehabilitation to both prevent a recurrence and improve your sporting performance.

Depending on what your training or competitive program entails, a speed, agility, technique correction and power program will be customised to prepare you for swimming-specific training.


Phase 7: Return to Swimming

Depending on the demands of your swimming season, you will require individual exercises and a progressed training regime to enable a safe and injury-free return to swimming. 

Your remedial therapist will discuss your goals, time frames and training schedules with you and your coach to optimise you for a complete return to swimming.

The perfect outcome will have you performing at full speed, power, agility and function with the added knowledge that a through rehabilitation program has minimised your chance of future injury.


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