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Shoulder Pain When Swimming: Causes and Solutions for Swimmers

Dive into the depths of this comprehensive guide to understand the causes and prevention of swimmer's shoulder, a common ailment that plagues swimmers. Discover how to keep your shoulders healthy and pain-free, ensuring an enjoyable and injury-free time in the water.

Swimming is an excellent form of exercise, offering a low-impact full-body workout that is easy on the joints. However, due to the repetitive nature of swimming strokes, shoulder pain is a common complaint among swimmers. Understanding the causes of shoulder pain in swimming and how to prevent it can help you enjoy your time in the water without discomfort.

Shoulder pain in swimming, often referred to as "swimmer's shoulder," is caused by instability stemming from the demands specific to the sport. With freestyle, butterfly, and backstroke swimming styles, your shoulder joint is highly susceptible to developing pain and irritation due to the repetitive motions. Recognizing the warning signs of swimmer's shoulder and implementing preventative measures can help reduce the risk of injury and maintain a healthy swim routine.

What are the Symptoms of Swimmer's Shoulder?

Experiencing shoulder pain while swimming can be an indication of a condition called swimmer's shoulder. This pain usually arises from overuse or improper technique, and may ultimately affect your performance in the pool. As a swimmer, it's important to recognize the symptoms of swimmer's shoulder and consult a physiotherapist if necessary, such as those at Inertia Physio.

Swimmer's shoulder pain typically presents itself in the following ways:

  • Aching or sharp pain: You may feel a constant ache in your shoulder, or a sharp pain during specific movements such as reaching overhead or pulling through the water.

  • Limited range of motion: Your shoulder may feel stiffer than usual, making it difficult to move freely and comfortably.

  • Weakness: You might notice a decrease in the strength of your shoulder and arm, which can impair your swimming performance.

  • Crepitus or clicking: Some swimmers with swimmer's shoulder can experience a grinding or clicking sensation in the joint when moving their arm.

In some instances, pain doesn't appear immediately during or after a swimming session; it might develop gradually over time, becoming more noticeable and intense as you continue to swim. It is crucial to address any shoulder pain early on to prevent any long-term damage and ensure you can maintain your level of activity.

Swimmer's shoulder, if untreated, can lead to negative consequences on your swimming performance. The pain may hinder your ability to maintain proper technique or generate adequate force while swimming, resulting in a decrease in overall performance. Furthermore, if swimmer's shoulder is left untreated, it could potentially develop into more serious conditions and cause long-term damage to your shoulder joint.

What Causes Swimmer's Shoulder?

Swimmer's shoulder is a common issue experienced by swimmers, leading to pain and discomfort during and after swimming. It occurs due to a combination of factors related to the repetitive nature of swimming strokes and the mechanics of the shoulder joint. Here, you'll learn about the primary causes of shoulder pain while swimming and how to prevent swimmer's shoulder.

One of the primary reasons for swimmer's shoulder is shoulder impingement. This is a condition where the tendons of the rotator cuff become compressed by the surrounding structures, such as the acromion process and the coracoacromial ligament. During swimming, the continuous overhead movement of the arm can aggravate this impingement, leading to pain and inflammation.

The various swim strokes performed during swimming can contribute to swimmer's shoulder as well. Freestyle, butterfly, backstroke, and breaststroke all require repetitive overhead movements, which can lead to overuse of the shoulder joint. Particularly in freestyle swimmers, the focus on forward motion can result in secondary impingement of the shoulder, further contributing to the problem.

Shoulder mechanics play a crucial role in swimmer's shoulder. Proper alignment and coordination of the shoulder joint are essential for preventing impingement and pain. Improper stroke mechanics, muscle imbalances, and reduced flexibility can all negatively impact shoulder function, increasing the risk of injury for swimmers. Monitoring and correcting the biomechanics of your shoulder during swimming can help alleviate the symptoms of swimmer's shoulder.

Additionally, common shoulder injuries in swimmers, such as rotator cuff strains, labral tears, and shoulder instability, can contribute to the development of swimmer's shoulder. These injuries can occur due to excessive strain, poor technique, or a lack of adequate warm-up and stretching. Recognizing the symptoms early and seeking appropriate treatment can help prevent chronic pain and dysfunction.

Finally, overuse and repetitive motion are significant contributors to swimmer's shoulder. Intensive training schedules and high volume workouts can lead to excessive wear and tear on the shoulder joint. Balancing your training load and incorporating adequate rest and recovery periods can help limit the stress placed on your shoulder, reducing the risk of injury.

Preventing Swimmer's Shoulder

Swimmer's shoulder is a common issue among avid swimmers, and prevention can help alleviate pain and avoid long-term issues. To prevent swimmer's shoulder, you should focus on a few key factors, such as stroke mechanics, strengthening exercises, and proper swimming distance.

Understanding proper swim stroke mechanics is essential in minimizing your risk of developing swimmer's shoulder. When swimming, ensure that your arms are moving in smooth, controlled motions, allowing for minimal strain on your shoulders. Hone your technique to maintain proper body posture and alignment during each stroke. This proper form can decrease stress on the shoulder joint and surrounding muscles, ultimately helping prevent swimmer's shoulder.

Incorporating rotator cuff strengthening exercises into your routine is another vital step toward preventing swimmer's shoulder. By developing stronger muscles that support your shoulder joint, you can improve your shoulder's stability and reduce the risk of strain on the surrounding tendons and tissues. Regular strengthening exercises targeting your rotator cuff and scapular-positioning muscles can be beneficial in increasing strength and endurance, as outlined in a study from ScienceDirect.

Furthermore, it's essential to pay attention to your neck and shoulders while swimming. Strive to maintain proper head and neck alignment to minimize the strain placed on your cervical and thoracic spine. This alignment can effectively help prevent swimmer's shoulder by ensuring that the muscles surrounding your shoulder joint are working efficiently and not compensating for tension or misalignment elsewhere in the body.

Lastly, be mindful of the distance you cover in each swimming session. Overexertion can contribute to the development of swimmer's shoulder. Ramp up your swimming distance gradually, allowing your body to adapt to the increased workload without placing undue stress on your shoulders. Set realistic goals and listen to your body, making necessary adjustments to prevent injury.

What is the Recovery Time for Swimmer's Shoulder?

The recovery time for swimmer's shoulder can vary depending on several factors, including the severity of the injury, the effectiveness of treatment, and your adherence to rehabilitation exercises. Working with a physiotherapist to diagnose your injury accurately and developing a tailored treatment plan is crucial for a speedy and effective recovery.

When experiencing shoulder pain while swimming, obtaining a proper diagnosis is essential. This allows you and your physiotherapist to identify the root cause of the problem and develop a targeted treatment plan that addresses your specific needs.

The expected recovery time for swimmer's shoulder can range from a few weeks to several months. Some factors that can influence your recovery time include:

  • Severity of the injury: More severe injuries may take longer to heal.
  • Consistency with physiotherapy and rehabilitation: Following your prescribed exercises and treatment plan will aid your recovery.
  • Rest and activity modification: Taking some time off from swimming and modifying your activities can help reduce stress on the injured shoulder, allowing it to heal more effectively.

During the recovery process, you may experience some pain, swelling, or stiffness. Your physiotherapist will guide you through appropriate exercises and modalities to help manage these symptoms and promote healing. As you progress through your rehabilitation, you will begin to regain strength, flexibility, and function in your shoulder.

It is important to avoid returning to swimming too soon, as this may cause further injury or prolong your recovery time. Generally, you can begin to resume swimming once you have regained full range of motion and strength in your shoulder and have been cleared by your physiotherapist. This can take anywhere from a few weeks to several months, depending on your individual circumstances.

To prevent future episodes of swimmer's shoulder, consider the following tips:

  • Maintain proper swimming technique: Good form reduces the risk of shoulder strain or injury.
  • Incorporate regular strength training: Strengthening the muscles surrounding the shoulder can provide stability and support to the joint.
  • Warm-up and stretch before swimming: Proper warm-up and stretching routines can help prevent injuries.

By following these guidelines and working closely with your physiotherapist, you can optimize your recovery from swimmer's shoulder and return to the pool as soon as possible.


In summary, shoulder pain in swimmers can arise from various causes and risk factors. Maintaining proper swimming technique and a balanced training regimen is crucial for reducing the likelihood of developing pain or injury. Regularly monitoring your swim-training volumes and shoulder extension strength, along with being mindful of your personal history of shoulder pain, can aid in preventing injuries and associated discomfort [source].

Moreover, assessing and addressing alterations in shoulder rotational and flexion range of motion (ROM) may assist with managing shoulder pain in swimmers [source]. It is important to remember that individual risk factors will vary, and consulting with a professional, such as a physiotherapist, can provide tailored advice and treatment.

As a swimmer, prioritizing proper form, being consistent with stretching and conditioning exercises, and staying attentive to your body's needs will all contribute positively to your overall swimming experience. If you encounter shoulder pain or suspect a possible injury, don't hesitate to seek professional help from your healthcare provider or a qualified physiotherapist. They can provide valuable insight, design a customized rehabilitation program, and help you return to the pool with confidence and strength.

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