Compared to other sports, swimming is generally associated with fewer injuries, but it is still important to exercise caution. However, individuals who need to be better trained or engage in intensive pool swimming may experience shoulder problems. 

Shoulder problems are common among swimmers, often referred to as swimmer’s shoulders. What should you do if you experience shoulder pain while swimming?

What are the potential causes of shoulder pain?

In sports involving repetitive arm movements above the head, such as swimming, the shoulders can be susceptible to overload injuries. The constant strain on specific shoulder structures, such as the rotator cuff and scapula muscles, can lead to these injuries.

A nonprofessional swimmer may take around 12 strokes to complete a 25-meter swim. Completing 20 strokes (the equivalent of 500 meters of swimming) would involve approximately 240 complete shoulder rotations. It is crucial to perform the strokes correctly and avoid using “customized” swimming styles that may increase the risk of injury. Additionally, it is essential to prevent overtraining and allow sufficient rest time to minimize the chances of injury.

What is Swimmer’s Shoulder?

Swimmer’s shoulder refers to an inflammatory condition that affects the tendons of the rotator cuff or the bursa, which is the structure between the cuff and the acromial bone (the acromion). This bursa contains synovial fluid, which allows for smooth shoulder movement. 

Swimmer’s shoulder, or impingement syndrome or subacromial conflict syndrome, is commonly observed in specific swimming styles like freestyle and butterfly. 

During each stroke, the space between the rotator cuff and acromion decreases, which can result in the bone rubbing against the tendons or bursa, leading to:

  • pain
  • limited range of motion while raising or lowering the arm
  • swelling

What to Do When You Have Shoulder Pain 

When experiencing inflammatory-type pain in the shoulder, it is crucial to take specific measures:

  • rest the arm by refraining from swimming and avoiding broad movements or excessive strain on the shoulder
  • applying ice to the affected area for about 10 minutes multiple times a day to help alleviate the pain 

While it’s generally not necessary to immobilize the limb unless advised by a specialist, it is recommended to consult an orthopedic specialist, particularly if the pain persists beyond a few days. This consultation will allow for an assessment of the inflammation and potential injuries.

To address the pain and reduce inflammation, specific conservative treatments such as cortisone infiltration or a rehabilitation program may be required. In cases where impingement has led to rotator cuff tendon injuries, arthroscopic surgical therapies to repair the damage may be considered as well. It is best to seek guidance from a specialist to determine the most suitable course of action for your condition.