Swimmer’s Shoulder

Swimmer's Shoulder

Article by John Miller

Swimmer’s Shoulder

What is Swimmer’s Shoulder?

Current data suggests that more than 30% of swimmers will miss competition or training due to injury. Of that population, over one-third of these injuries are concerning shoulder pain [1]. Additionally, up to 91% of swimmers aged 13-25 years old experience shoulder pain frequently [2].

“Swimmer’s shoulder” is an umbrella term used to describe numerous injuries that relate both to the swimming population and shoulder injuries. Due to the structural and biomechanical complexity of the shoulder, many factors relating to the swimming stroke can contribute to the presence of pain. Specifically, shoulder pain can either be local to the injured joint or can refer to other areas of the body, namely the thoracic, cervical and upper arm regions. Elite swimmers are generally performing approximately 2500 shoulder revolutions per day, and thus, most issues surrounding the shoulder attribute to an overuse phenomenon [3].

What Causes Swimmer’s Shoulder?


Irrespective of competitive level, the most prevalent of injuries surrounding the swimming population is shoulder pain. Both intrinsic (tendon morphology, vascularity) and extrinsic (acromion formation, stroke biomechanics, muscular imbalances) can influence how and why a swimmer experiences shoulder pain. An example of an external factor is crossing the midline during hand entry – this leads to an increase in internal rotation and resultant mechanical rotator cuff related shoulder pain (RCRSP) [4]. However, the pain produced is known to be multifactorial as opposed to a singular cause. Influential factors include the following issues:

  • Stroke biomechanical abnormalities
  • Overuse, fatigue or improper control and utilisation of the muscles of the shoulder, scapula and upper back
  • Glenohumeral (shoulder) laxity

Shoulder pain is primarily due to the muscular imbalance between the dominant muscles (adductors, internal rotators) and stabilising muscles (rotator cuff). Consequently, this leads to muscle activation and control deficits, causing a superior and anterior translation of the humeral head generally accompanied by tightening of the posterior capsule of the shoulder. This superior joint translation and poor muscle control results in the humeral head colliding into soft tissue. Impingement results in tissue trauma and pain. These structures include your supraspinatus tendon, subacromial bursa, and biceps tendon.

Pain and discomfort can further exacerbate if the swimmer continues to train at the same level of intensity and frequency as pre-injury.

Shoulder Anatomy

The shoulder is a ball and socket joint with a rim of fibrocartilaginous tissue to help deepen and stabilise the humeral head. Surrounding the joint is your joint capsule, a fibrous material, with thicker parts of the capsule forming ligaments.

There are several muscles and associated tendons that surround the shoulder joint. These muscles that have the most effect on the joint’s stability are the rotator cuff. This cuff comprises four muscles that work in unity to help maintain the shoulder positioned in the socket during shoulder and arm movements.

Specifically, the most well researched and controversial muscle is the supraspinatus. This tendon can become thickened and pathological in most swimmers reporting shoulder impingement. Furthermore, this tendon thickening is positively associated with kilometres swum in the pool and correlates strongly with shoulder pain [1]. Other structures have the potential to exhibit strain at the shoulder. These include the biceps tendon, glenohumeral labrum, and acromioclavicular joint.

How Long Does it Take to Recover from Swimmer’s Shoulder?

The longevity of your shoulder pain depends upon early assessment, treatment or coaching technique interventions. Rapid assessment is the quickest way to identify what is causing your swimmer’s shoulder. Then a treatment and coaching plan can be implemented to return you to full training optimally.  Chronic shoulder problems can often persist for 3 to 12 months if you ignore early intervention.

Please seek early diagnostic advice for an optimal resolution.

Swimmer’s Shoulder Treatment

Swimmer’s shoulder is a common but complex complaint that we see at PhysioWorks, and it is, unfortunately, an injury that often recurs if you return to swimming too quickly – primarily, if you don’t thoroughly rehabilitate.

Can You Swim with Shoulder Bursitis?

Shoulder bursitis is an inflammation of the bursa due to impingement. You will do yourself no favours by continuing to swim with a severely inflammed bursa. Mild bursitis sufferers can usually continue to swim with modifications to their swimming program while undergoing treatment.

Does Swimming Aggravate Your Rotator Cuff?

When your shoulder biomechanics, joint flexibility, muscle control, and soft tissue length are working optimally, your rotator cuff will be functioning correctly and usually strengthened by swimming. However, when your technique, training loads, muscle strength or flexibility is inadequate, your rotator cuff can become injured and result in rotator cuff injuries such as rotator cuff tendinopathy or rotator cuff tears.

How Do You Prevent Swimmer’s Shoulders?

A swimmer screening is an ideal way to assess the current risk status of you developing swimmer’s shoulder. Importantly, the results of your testing will enable your physiotherapist to prescribe customised prevention exercises to reduce your risk of developing swimmer’s shoulder.

Our PhysioWorks swimmer physiotherapists provide club, school, and individual swimmer screening programs. Please contact us for more details.


There is no specific time frame for the rehabilitation of swimmer’s shoulder. Many factors will determine your injury rehabilitation status during your physiotherapist’s clinical assessment. Individual training loads, swimming technique and your body’s ability to perform a normal swimming stroke influence your outcome. You’ll find that in most cases, your physiotherapist will seamlessly progress between the rehabilitation phases as your clinical assessment and function improves.

It is also crucial to carefully monitor each progression. Attempting to progress too soon to the next level can lead to re-injury and frustration. Ideally, your swim coach and physiotherapist should be communicating regularly throughout your rehabilitation phases.

Please contact your shoulder physiotherapist for specific advice regarding your swimmer’s shoulder.

Common Shoulder Pain & Injury Conditions

Rotator Cuff

Adhesive Capsulitis

Shoulder Bursitis

Shoulder Instability

Acromioclavicular Joint

Bone Injuries

Post-Operative Physiotherapy

Muscle Conditions

Systemic Conditions

Referred Pain

Shoulder Treatment

Researchers have discovered that managing your shoulder injury with physiotherapy is usually successful. Typically, you have two options: a non-operative or a surgical approach. Your condition will dictate which option is best for you at this time. Non-operative care is conservative rehabilitation.

If shoulder surgery is required, then your physiotherapist may undertake:

Pre-operative rehabilitation  - either trial a non-operative/conservative treatment approach or condition and prepare your shoulder and body for a surgical procedure.

Post-operative physiotherapy will safely regain your normal range of movement, strength and function.

PhysioWorks physiotherapists have a particular interest and an excellent working relationship with leading shoulder surgeons. Our physiotherapy team provide you with both conservative and post-operative shoulder rehabilitation options. We aim for you to attain the best possible outcome for your shoulder injury.

For specific information regarding your shoulder, please consult your trusted shoulder physiotherapist.

Acute Injury Signs

Acute Injury Management.

Here are some warning signs that you have an injury. While some injuries are immediately evident, others can creep up slowly and progressively get worse. If you don't pay attention to both types of injuries, chronic problems can develop.

For detailed information on specific injuries, check out the injury by body part section.

Don't Ignore these Injury Warning Signs

Joint Pain

Joint pain, particularly in the knee, ankle, elbow, and wrist joints, should never be ignored. Because these joints are not covered by muscle, pain here is rarely of muscular origin. Joint pain that lasts more than 48 hours requires a professional diagnosis.


If you can elicit pain at a specific point in a bone, muscle, or joint, you may have a significant injury by pressing your finger into it. If the same spot on the other side of the body does not produce the same pain, you should probably see your health professional.  


Nearly all sports or musculoskeletal injuries cause swelling. Swelling is usually quite obvious and can be seen, but occasionally you may feel as though something is swollen or "full" even though it looks normal. Swelling usually goes along with pain, redness and heat.

Reduced Range of Motion

If the swelling isn't obvious, you can usually find it by checking for a reduced range of motion in a joint. If there is significant swelling within a joint, you will lose range of motion. Compare one side of the body with the other to identify major differences. If there are any, you probably have an injury that needs attention.


Compare sides for weakness by performing the same task. One way to tell is to lift the same weight with the right and left sides and look at the result. Or try to place body weight on one leg and then the other. A difference in your ability to support your weight is another suggestion of an injury that requires attention.

Immediate Injury Treatment: Step-by-Step Guidelines

  • Stop the activity immediately.
  • Wrap the injured part in a compression bandage.
  • Apply ice to the injured part (use a bag of crushed ice or a bag of frozen vegetables).
  • Elevate the injured part to reduce swelling.
  • Consult your health practitioner for a proper diagnosis of any serious injury.
  • Rehabilitate your injury under professional guidance.
  • Seek a second opinion if you are not improving.