Swimmer's Shoulder: Symptoms, Causes, and Best Exercises

Learn the causes and symptoms of swimmer’s shoulder and how to treat it, especially with exercises and stretches from physical therapists.

Published Date: May 9, 2024
swimmer-woman-on-a-swimming-pool-stretching-her-shoulder

Swimmer's Shoulder: Symptoms, Causes, and Best Exercises

Learn the causes and symptoms of swimmer’s shoulder and how to treat it, especially with exercises and stretches from physical therapists.

Published Date: May 9, 2024
swimmer-woman-on-a-swimming-pool-stretching-her-shoulder

Swimmer's Shoulder: Symptoms, Causes, and Best Exercises

Learn the causes and symptoms of swimmer’s shoulder and how to treat it, especially with exercises and stretches from physical therapists.

Published Date: May 9, 2024
swimmer-woman-on-a-swimming-pool-stretching-her-shoulder

Swimmer's Shoulder: Symptoms, Causes, and Best Exercises

Learn the causes and symptoms of swimmer’s shoulder and how to treat it, especially with exercises and stretches from physical therapists.

Published Date: May 9, 2024
swimmer-woman-on-a-swimming-pool-stretching-her-shoulder
Table of Contents

If you’ve been having a tough time lifting your arm over your head, you might have a condition known as swimmer’s shoulder. And while, yes, the condition can commonly occur among swimmers, it’s actually a broad term for several conditions that can cause shoulder pain and weakness. It can happen due to repetitive movements involving the shoulder, including swimming, throwing, or frequently reaching overhead. 

Anyone can experience swimmer's shoulder, even people who never go swimming. The condition can be uncomfortable and interfere with everyday movements like reaching in a high cabinet or washing your hair. Fortunately, swimmer’s shoulder usually gets better over time with conservative interventions, especially with exercises that strengthen the shoulder muscles. 

Read on to learn more about what causes swimmer’s shoulder, along with how to prevent and treat it — especially with exercises recommended by our Hinge Health physical therapists. 

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Our Hinge Health Experts

Sarah Kellen, PT, DPT
Physical Therapist
Dr. Kellen is a Hinge Health Physical Therapist and board-certified orthopedic clinical specialist. She has a special interest in pregnancy and postpartum care.
Jonathan Lee, MD, MBA
Orthopedic Surgeon and Medical Reviewer
Dr. Lee is a board-certified orthopedic surgeon and an Associate Medical Director at Hinge Health.
Dylan Peterson, PT, DPT
Physical Therapist and Clinical Reviewer
Dr. Peterson is a Hinge Health physical therapist who focuses on developing clinical exercise therapy programs and member education.

What Is Swimmer’s Shoulder?

Swimmer’s shoulder is a catch-all term for shoulder pain that occurs with overhead movements, says Sarah Kellen, PT, DPT, a physical therapist at Hinge Health. It occurs when muscles or tendons in the shoulder become irritated, which can limit mobility. “We commonly see it in swimmers, but it can happen to people who play other sports or have a job with repetitive arm movements,” she says. 

Swimmer’s shoulder can stem from a variety of causes, including direct injuries to the shoulder or other conditions, like tendinitis, that result from repetitive motion or overuse. 

Symptoms of Swimmer’s Shoulder

Swimmer’s shoulder, while very treatable, can be uncomfortable and interfere with day-to-day activities. The most common symptoms of swimmer’s shoulder include: 

  • Pain when you lift your arm higher than your shoulder 

  • Limited range of motion when you lift your arm overhead

  • Pain in your upper arm

While swimmer’s shoulder can cause pain and weakness in the front part of your shoulder and upper arm, Dr. Kellen notes it usually doesn’t result in numbness or tingling down the arm. 

Common Causes of Swimmer’s Shoulder 

“When the arm is going overhead, the space at the top of the shoulder can narrow, which can cause irritation with movement,” says Dr. Kellen. 

While repetitive movements are a typical source of pain, it’s important to note that repetitive movements aren’t inherently bad. If you develop swimmer's shoulder, it may just be a sign that your body needs more stretching or strengthening to tolerate those repetitive activities better.

Common types of swimmer’s shoulder, or potential problems often associated with swimmer’s shoulder, include: 

  • Rotator cuff tendinitis. You may experience swimmer’s shoulder when the tendons around your rotator cuff, the tissues that support your shoulder joint, become inflamed and irritated. 

  • Shoulder impingement syndrome. Swimmer’s shoulder can also occur when your scapula (shoulder blade) pinches your rotator cuff. This is known as shoulder impingement.

  • Labral tears. Your shoulder labrum is cartilage that helps stabilize your shoulder joint. When this area is injured, you might have difficulty with overhead movements.

  • Biceps tendinitis. The tendons that connect your biceps muscles to your shoulder can become inflamed and cause pain and limited range of motion in your shoulder. 

  • Muscle strain. Muscle strains happen when a part of your muscle over-stretches or tears. This commonly occurs when your muscles engage in activity they aren’t prepared for, like jumping into a pickup basketball game without warming up properly. A muscle strain in your shoulder can cause swimmer’s shoulder symptoms. 

Treatment Options for Swimmer’s Shoulder

Swimmer’s shoulder can cause pain that makes normal daily movements more difficult. But Dr. Kellen says most cases resolve on their own with time. In the meantime, you can take a few simple steps to reduce pain and improve your shoulder function.

  • Heat or ice. Applying heat can help warm up your shoulder muscles for movement, while ice can calm swelling and inflammation that makes it hard to move. Either ice or heat therapy can be useful for swimmer’s shoulder, as long as it feels good. 

  • Over-the-counter (OTC) medication. Pain relievers such as ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin), naproxen (Aleve), and acetaminophen (Tylenol) can be helpful for pain stemming from swimmer’s shoulder. It’s important to make sure that you are safely able to take these medications, based on your medical history. 

  • Activity modifications. Complete rest isn’t recommended for swimmer’s shoulder. It’s important to keep your shoulder joint mobile. That said, you can adjust your routines to prevent shoulder pain as you strengthen the area and heal. This may mean limiting some overhead movements until you build more strength.

The most helpful way to improve swimmer’s shoulder symptoms, says Dr. Kellen, is exercise. “We want to strengthen the specific muscles around your shoulder to help prepare you for activity, so you can move without limitations or pain,” she says.

Exercises to Help Relieve Pain from Swimmer’s Shoulder

Get 100+ similar exercises for free

  • Cross-Arm Stretch
  • Scapular Squeeze
  • Side Lying Arm Rotation
  • Resisted Serratus Hug
  • Seated Resisted Shoulder Hinges

Strengthening the muscles around your shoulder will likely be the crux of your exercise routine if you have swimmer’s shoulder symptoms. Dr. Kellen says stretching exercises can also be helpful. “With swimmer's shoulder, you can develop tightness in areas of the shoulder, so regular stretching can help increase range of motion and decrease pain, making it easier to perform strengthening exercises,” she says. The following exercises are a good place to start. 

The information contained in these videos is intended to be used for educational purposes only and does not constitute medical advice or treatment for any specific condition. Hinge Health is not your healthcare provider and is not responsible for any injury sustained or exacerbated by your use of or participation in these exercises. Please consult with your healthcare provider with any questions you may have about your medical condition or treatment.

PT Tip: Keep Moving

It may not always feel good to move when you have an injury, but physical activity is an essential part of improving shoulder pain and increasing your functionality in daily life. “I always encourage people to stay active but modify their movements,” says Dr. Kellen. “Maybe you need more frequent rest breaks or to change up tasks to temporarily limit repetitive overhead movement whether with sports or work. Either way, if you switch it up and incorporate exercise early, you’ll likely improve quickly.”

How Hinge Health Can Help You 

If you have joint or muscle pain that makes it hard to move, you can get the relief you’ve been looking for with Hinge Health’s online exercise therapy program.

The best part: You don’t have to leave your home because our program is digital. That means you can easily get the care you need through our app, when and where it works for you.

Through our program, you’ll have access to therapeutic exercises and stretches for your condition. Additionally, you’ll have a personal care team to guide, support, and tailor our program to you.

See if you qualify for Hinge Health and confirm free coverage through your employer or benefit plan here.

This article and its contents are provided for educational and informational purposes only and do not constitute medical advice or professional services specific to you or your medical condition.

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References

  1. Andersen, C. H., Andersen, L. L., Zebis, M. K., & Sjøgaard, G. (2013). Effect of Scapular Function Training on Chronic Pain in the Neck/Shoulder Region: A Randomized Controlled Trial. Journal of Occupational Rehabilitation, 24(2), 316–324. doi:10.1007/s10926-013-9441-1

  2. Armstrong, A. D. (2021, July). Shoulder Impingement/Rotator Cuff Tendinitis. OrthoInfo – American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons. https://orthoinfo.aaos.org/en/diseases--conditions/shoulder-impingementrotator-cuff-tendinitis 

  3. Christensen, B. H., Andersen, K. S., Rasmussen, S., Andreasen, E. L., Nielsen, L. M., & Jensen, S. L. (2016). Enhanced function and quality of life following 5 months of exercise therapy for patients with irreparable rotator cuff tears – an intervention study. BMC Musculoskeletal Disorders, 17(1). doi:10.1186/s12891-016-1116-6

  4. Pieters, L., Lewis, J., Kuppens, K., Jochems, J., Bruijstens, T., Joossens, L., & Struyf, F. (2020). An Update of Systematic Reviews Examining the Effectiveness of Conservative Physical Therapy Interventions for Subacromial Shoulder Pain. Journal of Orthopaedic & Sports Physical Therapy, 50(3), 131–141. doi:10.2519/jospt.2020.8498

  5. Simons, S. M. & Roberts, M. (2021, April). Patient education: Rotator Cuff Tendinitis and Tear (Beyond the Basics). UpToDate. https://www.uptodate.com/contents/rotator-cuff-tendinitis-and-tear-beyond-the-basics