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What Is Swimmer’s Shoulder?


Swimmer’s shoulder, also known as shoulder impingement, is a repetitive motion injury that causes inflammation of the tendons and other soft tissue that connect the arm to the upper body. As the name suggests, swimmer’s shoulder commonly develops among swimmers due to the overhead motions involved with this activity. However, this injury can develop among anyone who performs repetitive shoulder motions, including tennis and baseball players, as well as physical jobs such as plumbers, carpenters and electricians. 

Whether you have been recently diagnosed with swimmer’s shoulder or are researching potential causes of your shoulder pain and other symptoms, learning more about this condition can help you become a more informed patient. Take some time to read the following information and if you have any questions, don’t hesitate to reach out to one of our representatives. The USA Spine Care & Orthopedics team is committed to helping you find the relief you deserve.

Causes and symptoms of swimmer’s shoulder

Repetitive motion injuries such as swimmer’s shoulder or shoulder impingement are caused by overuse that leads to small tears that inflame tendons and muscles in the shoulder. Continuing to use the shoulder when strained or sprained can in turn lead to more inflammation and scarring. This disrupts the normal functioning of the shoulder, leading to reduced range of motion and pain. 

The most common specific symptoms of swimmer’s shoulder include:

  • A radiating pain along the back of the shoulder
  • Muscle weakness and fatigue
  • Stiffness and reduced range of motion
  • Instability in the shoulder

Diagnosing swimmer’s shoulder

If you are experiencing any of these symptoms, it is critical to see a doctor for diagnosis and treatment. Untreated swimmer’s shoulder has the potential to worsen and can lead to associated injuries such as rotator cuff tears and bursitis. 

When you meet with a physician to treat shoulder pain and immobility, he or she will typically take the following steps to reach a diagnosis:

  • Review your health and injury history
  • Ask questions about your specific symptoms and the activities that trigger them
  • Perform a hands-on examination to detect painful areas
  • Perform movement tests
  • In some cases, order diagnostic testing to confirm swimmer’s shoulder or rule out other condition 

Conservative options for swimmers’ shoulder

Upon diagnosis of swimmer’s shoulder, the goal of initial treatment is to manage symptoms and promote the natural healing process. Swimmer’s shoulder and shoulder impingement can heal on their own, but it takes time. The most important thing any patient can do to promote a positive outcome is rest. Added strain on the shoulder prolongs healing time and increases risk of the injury worsening or developing into a more serious problem such as bursitis or a rotator cuff tear. 

Common conservative treatments that can help swimmer’s shoulder include: 

  • Using a heating pad to relax tense muscles and improve blood flow
  • Alternating heat therapy with cold therapy, such as an ice pack to reduce inflammation and numb the area on a short-term basis
  • Modifying activities to reduce stress on the shoulder, such as moving items to limit overhead motions
  • Taking over-the-counter medication on an as-needed basis 
  • Undergoing physical therapy to mobilize the joint, increase stability and learn proper shoulder mechanics
  • Receiving corticosteroid injections to reduce inflammation and pain in the shoulder

Recovery time for swimmer’s shoulder varies on a case-by-case basis, usually ranging from weeks to months. Some forms of the injury may require up to a year to fully heal and allow for the resumption of normal activities.

When to consider shoulder surgery

Surgery usually becomes an option only if swimmer’s shoulder doesn’t heal after fully attempting conservative treatments. In other situations, surgery may become necessary if the injury develops into bursitis or a rotator cuff tear. Surgeons can perform many shoulder repair surgeries using minimally invasive arthroscopic techniques that allow for an outpatient procedure.  

Reach out to the USA Spine Care & Orthopedics team today

If you are dealing with pain and limited mobility related to swimmer’s shoulder or a related injury, the dedicated and experienced team at USA Spine Care can help. Our multidisciplinary experts offer therapeutic injections, physical therapy and outpatient surgery to help you at any step of your treatment journey. 

To learn more, contact us today

Swimmer’s Shoulder Quick Answers

Where do swimmer’s shoulder symptoms develop?

Swimmer’s shoulder pain is usually experienced as radiating pain felt along the back of the shoulder. As the name implies, motions such as swimming that involve repetitive overhead reaching can increase pain. In some cases, patients with the condition report feeling pain on the front of the shoulder, but this is less common. 

How do doctors diagnose swimmer’s shoulder?

After asking about symptoms, discussing lifestyle and activity level and reviewing medical history, doctors will perform a physical examination with specialized movement tests to diagnose swimmer’s shoulder. This will generally involve extending the arm overhead and behind the back to detect range of motion. Additionally, diagnostic tests may be ordered to confirm shoulder impingement or rule out other causes.  

Can swimmer’s shoulder heal?

Swimmer’s shoulder can heal with time and proper treatment. Recovery time varies from patient to patient, often ranging between 12 to 24 weeks, although some cases may take longer. It is important to commit to recovery and not rush into activities that put stress on the shoulder until cleared by your doctor. 

When can I swim again if I have swimmer’s shoulder?

It is critical not to resume swimming or any other strenuous physical activity until you have been cleared by your doctor or other qualified medical professional. Cutting recovery short can prolong the length of the injury and risk reinjury. Once cleared to resume swimming, patients should still take a cautious approach and practice proper form.


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