Back and neck injuries are more common in taller people. A continuing theme on this site is how to adapt, both to prevent and to recover from such injuries. Swimming can help. Tall people may be drawn to swimming in the first place because of the inherent physical advantage their taller stature provides. In this post, an approach to swimming that is particularly conducive to spinal health is introduced.
Swimming to ease back pain is a recommendation made in all corners of our medical spectrum, from orthopedic surgeons to holistic healers and is even confirmed as effective in the literature . Swimming provides gentle motion with minimal impact while still sufficient resistance to strengthen the core and yield cardiovascular benefits. But which swimming stroke are these specialists referring too? Certainly not the Phelps style butterfly; this requires an Olympian physique.
And there are issues with the other strokes too. Hyper-extension is perhaps the most problematic and is most present in the breast stroke as the swimmer repetitively extends their spine to come up for air. This can actualy compromise the spine, leading to such conditions as what is termed “swimmer’s neck” . Hyper-extension can also be a problem in the front crawl (freestyle), however the larger spinal motion is that of twisting. The back stroke requires the least deviation from an ideal neutral posture. Though it may also be the least accessible to the novice swimmer given the lack of forward visibility.
Unbeknownst to your younger self, you likely once swam in a manner more conducive to spinal health; the same snorkel that allowed your head to remain submerged for longer while searching for treasure also inadvertently allowed your spine to remain in a relaxed and neutral posture.
Curiously, you rarely see lane swimmers using snorkels. Perhaps it is the association with children frolicking, or perhaps it is the discomfort of an off-center tube pulling on the side of the head. The latter can be solved by using what is known as a swim snorkel which sits centered on the face. Swim snorkels are commonly used to allow novice swimmers to focus on their stroke without worrying about breathing technique, but they also happen to be of particular benefit to back and neck pain sufferers.
Swim snorkels can be used with a variety of swim strokes including both the breast and front crawl. One particularly therapeutic stroke is to combine a flutter kick with a gentle breast stroke with the arms. No matter what stroke is chosen, the key is that the spine remains neutral and the supporting muscles are not overworked.
Another swimming accessory that can be helpful for some spinal injuries are swim fins (small flippers). By using swim fins, the legs can do more of the work, further decreasing the forces acting on the thoracic and cervical spine.
And for inspiration, check out Finswimming in the video below, which you’ll hopefully be able to do when your back gets better! You might just be able to take on Phelps after all!
 Ariyoshi M. et al., Efficacy of aquatic exercises for patients with low-back pain, Kurume Med J., 1999.
Ross, H. A., Swimmer’s Neck, Journal of the American Osteopathic Association, 1974.