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Swimmer’s Shoulder: Causes, Diagnosis & Treatment

Author: Niki L. Carayannopoulos, DO

In my last blog post, I shared with you some of the benefits of swimming for exercise, including a lower risk of injury when compared to contact sports and impact exercises like running. While overall risk may lower in the pool, injury is still possible with swimming (or any kind of athletic activity).

Today, I’d like to discuss a somewhat common swimming injury: swimmer’s shoulder, an overuse injury that can occur in lap swimmers.

What is swimmer’s shoulder?

“Swimmer’s shoulder” is a general term used to describe several kinds of overuse injuries in the shoulder, including impingement. This type of injury is often seen in lap swimmers, who may perform the same arm motion hundreds – if not thousands – of times in a single session.

When the arm performs the same motion over and over, even a slight irritation in the shoulder joint (or abnormality in the swimmer’s technique) can compound, leading to moderate to severe pain and swelling. By continuing to swim through the injury, the inflammation may spread, making it more difficult to pinpoint the cause of the problem and address the issue.

How is swimmer’s shoulder diagnosed?

If you are experiencing swelling, pain or discomfort in the shoulder, see your Houston sports medicine physician for an evaluation. During your appointment, your provider will ask you about your symptoms and history. A physical examination and range of motion testing may also be done at this time. In some cases (but not all) an x-ray, MRI, or some other imaging test may be necessary to look for damage to the bones, muscles, tendons and cartilage in and near the shoulder joint.

What treatments are available for swimmer’s shoulder?

Treatment will depend on the cause of swimmer’s shoulder. In many cases, simple R.I.C.E. therapy (rest, ice, compression and elevation) and the use of a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug may be sufficient. Some patients may benefit from physical therapy or strength training, as well.

If possible, have a professional, experienced swim coach or trainer observe your stroke. (Record a video of yourself swimming if you are unable to have anyone present.) Reviewing your tape with a professional may reveal flaws in your technique that contribute to inflammation or fatigue in the shoulder.

Schedule With a Houston Sports Medicine Doctor

For more information about swimmer’s shoulder and your diagnosis and treatment options, schedule an appointment at Houston Institute for Sports Medicine & Orthopedics. Call (713) 756-5546, or schedule online.

Please consult with your physician before undertaking any form of medical treatment or adopting any exercise program or dietary guidelines.