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Swimmer's Shoulder

  • Author: Sherwin SW Ho, MD; Chief Editor: Craig C Young, MD  more...
 
Updated: May 29, 2014
 

Background

Swimmer's shoulder is the term used to describe the problem of shoulder pain in the competitive swimmer. Swimming is an unusual sport in that the shoulders and upper extremities are used for locomotion, while at the same time requiring above average shoulder flexibility and range of motion (ROM) for maximal efficiency. This is often associated with an undesirable increase in joint laxity. Furthermore, it is performed in a fluid medium, which offers more resistance to movement than air. This combination of unnatural demands can lead to a spectrum of overuse injuries seen in the swimmer's shoulder, the most common of which is rotator cuff tendinitis.

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Epidemiology

Frequency

United States

The incidence of swimmer's shoulder has been reported to be as low as 3% and as high as 67%. When specifically defined as "significant shoulder pain that interferes with training or progress in training," an incidence of 35% has been reported in elite and senior level swimmers.

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Functional Anatomy

The shoulder girdle is made up of 3 bones (the scapula, clavicle, and proximal humerus), 2 joints (the glenohumeral and acromioclavicular joints), and numerous ligaments, muscles, and tendons. The subacromial bursa overlies the rotator cuff and can provide it with some mechanical protection from the bony acromion above in the face of impingement.

The key ligaments are the glenohumeral ligaments (inferior, middle, superior), which are thickened regions of the joint capsule, of which the inferior glenohumeral ligament is most important. Their role is to help stabilize the glenohumeral joint, in support of the rotator cuff muscles.

The key muscle group of the shoulder is the rotator cuff, made up of (from anterior to posterior) the subscapularis, supraspinatus, infraspinatus, and teres minor. The primary role of the rotator cuff is to function as the dynamic and functional stabilizer of the glenohumeral joint. The long head of the biceps tendon, located between the subscapularis and supraspinatus, also assists the rotator cuff in stabilizing the glenohumeral joint. These muscles and their tendons can be overused and injured in shoulder dominant activities such as swimming, with the most commonly injured portion of the cuff being the supraspinatus. On the other hand, the "power muscles" of the shoulders, including the latissimus dorsi, pectoralis, and deltoid, are responsible for moving the arm through space or water, but only infrequently sustain significant injury.

Finally, the trapezius, levator scapulae, rhomboids, and serratus anterior muscles stabilize and position the scapula and shoulder girdle, and are therefore very important to the swimming stroke. Without a stable platform from which to work, the shoulder and arm cannot function efficiently. Fortunately, they also are only occasionally the source of significant injury in the swimmer.

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Sport-Specific Biomechanics

The 4 basic strokes used in competitive swimming are the freestyle, backstroke, breaststroke, and butterfly. Biomechanically, each stroke can be divided into as many as 5 different phases; however, for the purpose of this article, each stroke is divided into two main phases: propulsion and recovery.

Strength and power are required for maximal propulsion, while flexibility is required for an efficient and faster recovery. Increased shoulder flexibility and ROM are beneficial to all strokes but can result in increased laxity of the glenohumeral joint capsule and ligaments, the static stabilizers of the shoulder. This laxity must then be compensated for by a stronger rotator cuff, to keep the humeral head centered in the glenoid socket during stroke activity, a requirement for efficient stroke work as well as to avoid injury to the labrum and cuff.

To better understand how the shoulder works in swimming, it may be helpful to think of the upper extremity as a lever or "canoe paddle" mechanism. The swimmer's hand functions as the flat end of the paddle. The rotator cuff functions as a fulcrum stabilizing the glenohumeral joint so that the power muscles of the shoulder are able to pull the arm through the water. This would be analogous to the way in which a canoeist uses one hand to stabilize the upper end of a paddle as a fulcrum, so that the lower hand can pull the paddle through the water more efficiently.

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Contributor Information and Disclosures
Author

Sherwin SW Ho, MD Associate Professor, Department of Surgery, Section of Orthopedic Surgery and Rehabilitation Medicine, University of Chicago Division of the Biological Sciences, The Pritzker School of Medicine

Sherwin SW Ho, MD is a member of the following medical societies: American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons, Arthroscopy Association of North America, Herodicus Society, American Orthopaedic Society for Sports Medicine

Disclosure: Received consulting fee from Biomet, Inc. for speaking and teaching; Received grant/research funds from Smith and Nephew for fellowship funding; Received grant/research funds from DJ Ortho for course funding; Received grant/research funds from Athletico Physical Therapy for course, research funding; Received royalty from Biomet, Inc. for consulting.

Coauthor(s)

Jovan R Laskovski, MD Fellow, Sports Medicine/Arthroscopic Surgery, Department of Orthopaedic Surgery, University of Chicago Medical Center

Jovan R Laskovski, MD is a member of the following medical societies: American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons, American Medical Association, American Medical Student Association/Foundation

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Specialty Editor Board

Francisco Talavera, PharmD, PhD Adjunct Assistant Professor, University of Nebraska Medical Center College of Pharmacy; Editor-in-Chief, Medscape Drug Reference

Disclosure: Received salary from Medscape for employment. for: Medscape.

Henry T Goitz, MD Academic Chair and Associate Director, Detroit Medical Center Sports Medicine Institute; Director, Education, Research, and Injury Prevention Center; Co-Director, Orthopaedic Sports Medicine Fellowship

Henry T Goitz, MD is a member of the following medical societies: American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons, American Orthopaedic Society for Sports Medicine

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Chief Editor

Craig C Young, MD Professor, Departments of Orthopedic Surgery and Community and Family Medicine, Medical Director of Sports Medicine, Medical College of Wisconsin

Craig C Young, MD is a member of the following medical societies: American Academy of Family Physicians, American College of Sports Medicine, American Medical Society for Sports Medicine, Phi Beta Kappa

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Additional Contributors

Craig C Young, MD Professor, Departments of Orthopedic Surgery and Community and Family Medicine, Medical Director of Sports Medicine, Medical College of Wisconsin

Craig C Young, MD is a member of the following medical societies: American Academy of Family Physicians, American College of Sports Medicine, American Medical Society for Sports Medicine, Phi Beta Kappa

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

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