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What Is Swimmer's Shoulder?

Swimmers are at risk of overexerting their rotator cuff.
Individuals who frequently exercise in the water may experience swimmer's shoulder.
A physical exam may need to be conducted by a physician to properly diagnose swimmer's shoulder.
Article Details
  • Written By: D. Jeffress
  • Edited By: Jenn Walker
  • Last Modified Date: 25 June 2014
  • Copyright Protected:
    2003-2014
    Conjecture Corporation
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Swimmer's shoulder refers to inflammation and pain in the rotator cuff, the collection of muscles, tendons, and cartilage that stabilize the shoulder joint. Overexertion of the shoulder and arm muscles can lead to tendonitis, bursitis, or tearing of muscle tissue. Swimmer's shoulder usually leads to tenderness and local pain in the joint, swelling, and a loss of mobility. Mild cases tend to go away by resting and icing the affected shoulder for a few days, but a severe rotator cuff injury may require a steroid injection or surgery to promote healing.

As the condition's name suggests, swimmer's shoulder is common in people who swim competitively or exercise in the water. The rotator cuff is highly involved in swimming strokes, as the arm is constantly in motion and fighting the resistance of water. Overexertion injuries are not isolated to swimmer's, however. Anyone who frequently exerts his or her shoulder muscles is at risk of a rotator cuff injury, including athletes, weightlifters, and construction workers. A muscle or tendon in the rotator cuff can also can become strained following acute trauma to the shoulder, as can occur during a fall or an awkward twist.

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A person who is afflicted with swimmer's shoulder is likely to notice swelling and redness around the joint that worsens after activity. The shoulder may become tender to the touch as the condition worsens, and it may be difficult to raise and lower the arm without experiencing sharp, radiating pain. Chronic swelling and pain can result in a loss of flexibility in the shoulder and a significantly limited range of motion. An individual who becomes limited in his or her ability to engage in regular activity due to shoulder pain should visit a physician to receive a proper diagnosis.

A doctor can check for swimmer's shoulder by conducting a physical examination and asking about symptoms. The physician may also decide to take an x-ray or a magnetic resonance imaging scan of the shoulder. Imaging tests can reveal inflamed cartilage tissue and any damage to muscles and tendons. In order to prescribe the best treatment, it is important for the doctor to uncover the causes of an injury and the extent of damage to the rotator cuff.

Most patients with swimmer's shoulder are instructed to simply rest and ice their arms for several days. A doctor may suggest an over-the-counter anti-inflammatory medication to reduce pain and swelling while the joint heals. By avoiding intense activity, an individual can usually recover in less than one month.

For a severe injury that causes unbearable pain, a doctor may decide to inject the joint with a steroid solution to immediately relieve symptoms. A patient may be given prescription painkillers and scheduled for physical therapy sessions to gradually regain use of the shoulder. A torn tendon or muscle often requires surgery to correct the problem. Following treatment, it is important for a patient to avoid intense activities until his or her doctor confirms that the injury has fully healed.

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