Swimmer's Shoulder

Updated: Feb 03, 2017
  • Author: Sherwin SW Ho, MD; Chief Editor: Craig C Young, MD  more...
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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.




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.


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.


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. [1]

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.

A study by Hibberd et al found that over the course of 12 weeks of training, swimmers had greater decreases in subacromial space distance and an increase in forward shoulder posture compared to nonoverhead athletes. [2]