Neck Pain When Swimming

neck pain and swimming posture

Keeping your head in line can help reduce the risk of neck pain when swimming.

Many people experience neck pain when swimming and, for some, the pain is bad enough to prevent them from engaging in this popular exercise. There are a variety of reasons that the neck can hurt when swimming and the pain is not always simply due to muscle fatigue or strain. For some, such symptoms of neck pain could indicate an issue such as spinal stenosis, disc herniation, cervical arthritis, or even a condition such as fibromyalgia. Swimming can be such a great exercise to keep both mind and body healthy so working out why you have neck pain when swimming is important as simple changes could get you back in the water this summer.

Why Does Your Neck Hurt When Swimming?

Swimming can be very stressful for the muscles in the neck so it helps to do a gentle warm-up before getting into the pool and immediately doing ten laps of aggressive front crawl. Jumping into a cold pool will shock your body and can cause your muscles to cramp up, as well as causing you to hold your breath or alter your breathing patterns. Holding your breath also reduces the oxygen supply to your muscles and is likely to lead to much earlier muscle fatigue, cramps, and neck pain when swimming so it can help to make sure you take regular breaks and are breathing steadily.

Who Gets Neck Pain from Swimming?

Swimming can cause both acute neck pain and chronic neck pain and it is not just occasional swimmers who suffer. Professional swimmers, triathletes, and others who swim regularly may also encounter neck pain if they develop a problematic stroke pattern, overtrain, are poorly prepared, or have an underlying condition causing neck pain. If you repeatedly suffer from neck pain when swimming then it can help to have a swimming coach evaluate your stroke. A professional swimming coach will be able to pick up subtleties in your technique that could be contributing to neck pain.

Swimming and Neck Pain – The Connection

Common problems that can cause neck pain when swimming include:

  • Craning the neck out of the water when swimming freestyle. Instead, keep your head in line when by facing down to the bottom of the pool.
  • Over-rotating the neck when taking a breath. Instead, remember that only one goggle needs to be out of the water for your mouth to be clear of the water’s cupped surface.
  • Breathing unilaterally. Instead, train yourself to take a breath by rotating the body on both sides. Get a swimming coach to help you if you develop neck pain when retraining as it likely means you’re straining your neck and not fully rotating your body.
  • Extending the neck during a flip turn. Instead, make sure the turn is smooth and that your head is slightly tucked, not extended.
  • Doing backstroke for too long. Backstroke requires considerable muscle strength to keep your mouth out of the water so build up to it rather than doing fifty lengths first try.
  • Breathing too late in butterfly. Instead, don’t wait until both arms are out of the water to breathe as this puts considerable stress on the neck; take a breath earlier in the stroke and get your head back in line as soon as possible.
  • Having a weak butterfly stroke. It can help to train outside of the pool to strengthen the arms and legs for butterfly, otherwise a weak kick can reduce the smoothness of your stroke and put strain on the neck as you try to breathe.

Causes of Neck Pain When Swimming

neck pain swimming poor technique

Turning the head too much can trigger neck pain when swimming - only one goggle need be out of the water to allow you to take a breath.

Many of the issues above are at the root of neck pain when swimming but it is also important to consider other sources of neck pain, even those that are not immediately obvious. Look at how you get to the swimming pool; are you cycling with a messenger bag? Are you holding onto a high rail on transit and straining your neck and shoulders before you even get to the gym? Do you always go for a swim after a game of squash with your friend? Are you blaming swimming for your neck pain when actually it just coincides with another, less obvious trigger? It could be that you always go swimming on a Tuesday and that’s when you have a boring staff meeting for three hours in which you slouch in an unsupportive chair in a draughty room. Look at your work set-up; is your screen at eye-level, is your desk too high and your arms elevated and tired when typing? Perhaps you have a lengthy call with a client just before you go swimming and you hold the phone between your ear and shoulder whilst rifling through reports, doing your nails, or checking the weather for the weekend.

Neck Exercise for Swimming-Related Neck Pain

An easy neck exercise to do before getting into the pool involves putting your hands behind your neck, with your fingers intertwined, and placing moderate pressure onto the middle of the neck. Hold this position for thirty seconds or so and then slowly lower your chin to your chest before removing the pressure from your hands and maintaining the position for another thirty seconds. This exercise can help if your neck starts hurting after a few laps, especially if you do front crawl and are getting stabbing pains in the neck when you move your head to the side to breathe. Try to relax into the neck stretch by taking a deep breath and then exhaling upon each movement.

Treating Neck Pain from Swimming

Neck pain from swimming is usually able to be rectified by identifying the trigger and removing it or working around it. Oftentimes this has little to do with fatigue and more to do with swimming technique or something external to the swimming itself. Talking to a chiropractor, Alexander Technique practitioner, your doctor, an osteopath, a physiotherapist, or a swimming coach can all help in identifying the cause of neck pain when swimming. If there is a problem with the cervical spine then your doctor may recommend that you avoid swimming and engage in a more appropriate exercise. Some are fine to continue swimming with some guidance on avoiding neck strain, and for others it may even help neck pain by swimming as it can improve mobility, strength, and general fitness. If your neck hurts while swimming then it is wise to stop and work out what is causing the problem. It may not mean a herniated disc, a sign of arthritis, and/or an impending trip to the operating room – the answer to your neck pain when swimming could be as simple as changing your swim-bag or warming up before getting in the pool.

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