Whether you’re doing it to cool off on a hot day, for your own personal enjoyment, or competitively, swimming can have many benefits. Swimming can also be an effective form of exercise for people of all ages. However, any activities involving constant and repetitive movements present some unique challenges for the human spine and its many parts, and swimming is no different. Fortunately, you can schedule an appointment with a Santa Monica spine surgeon from The Spine Institute if you’re experiencing swimming-related spine issues, and there are also some things you can do to protect your spine whenever you swim.
1. Don’t Dive without Knowing the Water’s Depth
Diving into water that’s too shallow could result in an instant spinal cord injury. Pay attention to water depths and signs pointing out designated diving areas when swimming in indoor or public pools. With lakes and rivers, don’t swim in areas where you’re not sure of the water depth. Also, avoid running or misjudging distance when diving.
2. Learn Proper Form and Technique
The front-crawl/freestyle stroke is the motion most people assume when swimming. The potential harm to your spine comes from over-exaggerated or excessive arm and shoulder movements that could place added pressure on your neck and upper back. When swimming, take the time to learn proper form, especially if you’ll be doing backstrokes, breaststrokes, or butterfly strokes. With freestyle swimming, protect your spine by:
• Keeping your body as level as possible
• Avoiding excessive neck turns or arm extensions
• Taking a break if you start to feel spine-related pain or feel like you’ve slipped out of proper form
3. Stretch Before You Swim
Water has natural buoyancy that eases pressure on the spine and supporting muscles. Even so, it’s still important to get into the habit of doing a brief 5 to 10-minute stretching routine before you get in any type of water because it can help you avoid straining muscles around your spine. The same advice applies if you’ll be doing other activities in water, like water skiing or wakeboarding.
4. Use Appropriate Safety Gear
With traditional swimming, there are special swim belts worn at waist level that can provide lower back support. If you’re going to be water skiing or performing stunts, wearing a helmet can minimize your risk of whiplash and other neck or upper-spine injuries. If you’ll be swimming with existing neck issues, aquatic foam collars can support your cervical spine.
5. Stay Hydrated
Even though you’ll be in water, swimming for hours in an outdoor pool or body of water can quickly result in dehydration. Water is important for the spine because it maintains a steady flow of nutrients to tissues, and it’s good for the spine’s spongy discs. Drinking water periodically can also prevent muscle strain and cramps. Play it safe when planning a day of swimming or water-based activities and bring plenty of water or be in an area where you’ll have access to fresh drinking water.
6. Work on Your Core Muscle Groups
When not in the water, protect your spine by focusing on exercises that target your core muscle groups. Consisting of just about everything except for the arms, legs, and head, core muscles are the most active muscle groups in the body. These are the same muscles that provide direct or indirect support to the spine. Having extra support from various muscle groups takes pressure off of the spine when swimming while also helping it retain its natural alignment. Core exercise options include:
• Abdominal crunches
• Bridge exercises
• Single and double-leg abdominal presses
• Segmental rotations
• Modified plank exercises
Note: Gentler forms of exercise, including water-based exercise and certain yoga movements, can also target core muscle groups.
If you have back pain from other sources, you can still enjoy swimming if you take some precautions. For instance, wearing a mask and snorkel can ease stress on the lower back by eliminating the need to rotate or arch the lower back while taking breaths. You may also benefit from water-based therapy to strengthen your back-supporting muscles if you’re recovering from an injury or spine surgery and hoping to be able to safely swim again.
If you are experiencing any discomfort or pain in your spine due to swimming or any other physical activity, reach out to The Spine Institute to see what your treatment options are. Dr. Hyun Bae, an experienced surgeon at The Spine Institute, can identify the root cause of the pain and determine whether you need to go through a spinal surgery such as a vertebroplasty procedure. Santa Monica residents can call310-828-7757 today to schedule an appointment.