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Swimmer’s Shoulder

Why Non-Swimmers Get “Swimmer’s Shoulder”

Swimmers often complain of aches and pains in their shoulder that either keeps them from swimming or limits how well they swim.  In one study, as much as 50% of swimmers experienced shoulder pain, often referred to as “swimmers shoulder.” Due to the repetitive movements that swimmers must perform at their shoulders, they tend to more prone to overuse injuries at their shoulder.  One of the common risk factors with swimmers is observed during hand entry in which the hand crosses midline.  This can cause more “pinching” at the shoulder joint.  If you’re not a swimmer, however, you can actually still have swimmer’s shoulder!

Swimmers shoulder is a common term for all of the shoulder aches and pains that occur in swimmers, but one of the most common causes of this pain is shoulder impingement.  This is when the person raises their arm only to get that pinch or catch in their shoulder.  Shoulder impingement typically shows up during everyday activities such as when doing an overhead press in the gym, reaching into the cabinet at home or trying to lift your quickly growing child up in the air.  The catch or pinch that you feel is the impact of your tendons or fluid sacs (bursae) getting pinched or caught on the roof of your shoulder.  This can make reaching, sleeping, throwing a ball, and even driving more difficult.

A quick self-test to see if  you might have impingement is to position your arm to your side with your palm facing forward and then raise your shoulder out to the side and then all the way up until reaching the ceiling (like making a snow angle).  If you have pain at the middle point of the motion, then it’s time to take action.

If this is all too familiar to you, there are some simple actions you can take to get on the right track.

  1. Try a little ice – I know this is all too common of a solution, but if your shoulder is causing steady pain, there is likely some lingering inflammation that a little cold therapy can help. Sometimes in our world of advanced technology and an abundance of medication options, it is the most simple solutions that are often overlooked.  You can create your own, or pick up a cold pack from your local sports store.
  1. Do some exercises – Strengthening the smaller muscles around the shoulder (ie. The rotator cuff) is important because these muscles help hold the ball of the shoulder in place when you raise your shoulder. Here are a couple favorites:

Shoulder external rotation – Begin standing upright with your elbow bent at 90 degrees and a towel roll tucked under your arm, holding a resistance band that is anchored out to your opposite side. Rotate your arm out to your side, pulling against the resistance, then slowly return to the starting position and repeat.

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Shoulder protraction - Begin lying on your back with your arms raised straight upward, holding a dumbbell in each hand.  Keep your elbows straight and punch your arms up toward the ceiling, raising your shoulders off the ground.

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  1. Add some stretches - You can only move as far as your muscles and joints allow.  Stretching some of the tight tissues will help reduce some of the pinching sensation you feel at your shoulder. Try these to get started.

Pect stretch – Begin in a standing upright position in the center of a doorway. With your elbow straight, place your hand on the side of the doorway at roughly a 60 degree angle from your side, then take a small step forward and slightly rotate your body until your feel a stretch in the front of your shoulder. Hold this position.

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Sleeper stretch - Begin by lying on your side with your bottom arm bent upward at a 90 degree angle. With your other arm, apply a gentle downward pressure until you feel a stretch in your shoulder.

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These are just a few to get started.  Keep working on theses and look to start seeing changes within a couple of weeks.  If you are not noticing changes or your progress comes to a halt, it is likely time for a comprehensive physical therapy assessment.

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Why Your Shoulder Pain Isn’t Going Away This Time

Shoulder pain in older adults often appears suddenly, as if caused by a sudden trauma or injury. But for many shoulder injuries can often the result of musculoskeletal conditions directly associated with wear over time and, more specifically, weakening posture.

Some people may think ‘I slept on it wrong’ or ‘I pulled something in my shoulder, but the truth might point to something more long-term. The pain might be something that’s been developing over time, perhaps due to taking on a tighter, less upright posture as they age.”

According the National Institutes of Health (NIH), anywhere from 44 to 65 percent of all complaints of shoulder pain can be attributed to a condition known as shoulder impingement syndrome – also known simply as “shoulder impingement.”

Shoulder impingement is the result of chronic and repetitive compression of the rotator-cuff tendons in the shoulder, causing inflammation, pain, weakness, and a decreased range of motion in the joint. The condition can be caused by repetitive overhead movements such as those performed by golfers, swimmers and racquet sport athletes.

Changes in posture over time – tightness in the back and neck coupled with an arching of the spine – can create conditions ideal for the development of shoulder impingement.  This can cause the rotator cuff to start to fray and tear, which can lead to tendinitis and even tears in the rotator cuff.”

The key to preventing shoulder impingement is regular mobility – moving and stretching your shoulders daily in order to stay loose and counteract the effects of declining posture. To do so here are some exercises to include as a part of your regular exercise regimen.

Back Extension/Shoulder Flexing Stretch: Sitting in a chair, hands clasped together, reach your arms high above your head and slowly reach backward, extending your head and hands behind you. Hold for a few seconds, relax, and then repeat.

Backward Shoulder Extensions: Standing upright, your fingers interlaced behind your back, slowly lift your arms away from your buttocks and toward the ceiling. Lift as high as you can. Keep an upright stance, hold for a few seconds, release, then do it again.

Up-Back Shoulder Reaches: Reach one arm behind your back and, palm facing out, slowly reach up the small of your back toward the space between your shoulder blades. Hold for a few seconds, release, then do the same with your other arm. Repeat one time each.

Down-Back Reaches: Reach your hand behind your head and down your back. Hold for a few seconds, release, and then do the same with your other arm. Repeat one time each.


Maintaining a healthy shoulder and preventing the onset of shoulder impingement translates into staying active, playing with the kids, comfortably reaching that top shelf in your cabinet, and even sleeping more comfortably.

Do these exercises but if it’s still not working, of courese a physical therapist can help you get there – or stay there – by thoroughly evaluating your condition and setting you on a personalized path toward pain-free motion.