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Swimming Away From Back Pain and Injury

Protect your back when you swim

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Woman in ocean
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Updated May 20, 2014
In many cases, swimming can be a very helpful exercise for back pain sufferers. Athletes commonly become injured, and swimming is a great way to keep active since it usually does not put excess strain on a swimmer's back. However, that's not to say that swimming can't cause back pain or injuries as well.

Sometimes lower back pain can be caused from swimming when the muscles in the lower back become hyper extended, or over stretched, during the breaststroke or other forward stokes. In addition to hyper extension of the lower back, the cervical spine, or upper spine and neck, can also become injured while swimming. Repetitive jerking motions of the head during frontward stokes could also seriously injure the area.

The neck and cervical spine are particularly prone to injury while swimming. The anatomy of this area of the spine is very complex and is composed of seven vertebrae surrounding the spinal cord, which extends downward from the brain. Stretching outward from the spinal cord are nerves which travel to muscles and other tissue throughout the body.

To prevent back pain while swimming, it's crucial that you use proper form and techniques. Unnatural or awkward movements while swimming can easily damage tissue through the back, so it's important to maintain the correct stokes and movements. In addition, swimming with sidestrokes or backstrokes can also minimize stress on the back when compared with frontward strokes. When doing the front crawl or other forward strokes, make sure to roll your body when taking a breath and avoid jerking the head backwards so that you can reduce strain on the neck. Using a snorkel can also help reduce the awkward movement of the neck by reducing the need to adjust the head when taking breaths. Wearing a mask or goggles can also reduce unintentionally jerky head movements while trying to get water out of the eyes. Boards, life vests, or other types of floatation devices can also help maintain proper form while swimming.

If you are actively involved with swimming and are experiencing neck or back pain, seek the advice of a coach or more experienced swimmer. If they spot you while swimming, they may be able to determine if something is wrong with your strokes and can advise you on proper technique.

Specific strokes can cause their own unique problems. The next page discusses some items to be aware of when doing certain strokes and several methods to help relieve back discomfort.

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