In all my years as a swimming coach, I have discovered that most swimmers suffer from various injuries to the neck or shoulder region.
One such case consisted of chronic neck pain that a newer swimmer, Tom, simply could not get rid of.
He tried icing his neck and stretching before and after each practice, but nothing seemed to help reduce the pain and stiffness. Finally, he visited a physical therapist assistant who ended up playing a vital role in Tom’s recovery process.
The physical therapist assistant helped determine the source of Tom’s pain and how it related to his neck’s function and mobility. The neck consists of spinal nerves that run between the vertebrae, sending signals to the joints, skin, shoulder joints, and muscles of your body.
Several muscles also exist in the neck, and once injured, these muscles can produce pain, numbness, tingling, and weakness. The physical therapist assistant discovered that Tom’s neck problems related back to the swimming strokes that we had been working on.
Changing Swimming Techniques
There were several subtle problems that were affecting the swimmer’s neck directly and indirectly with his freestyle stroke. A previous coach had recommended that Tom should swim in a slightly extended neck position while looking slightly forward.
When I began working with him, I changed the recommendation to a more modern approach, which is looking straight down at the pool’s bottom without lifting his head. The physical therapist assistant explained that having a slightly extended neck position for so long had resulted in Tom over-rotating his neck and causing strain to his muscles.
Getting the Proper Care
The physical therapist assistant took into account Tom’s complete history when teaching him exercise techniques to reduce the pain and stiffness in his neck. Tom went through several weeks of muscle stretching and strengthening routines to increase his neck’s flexibility and strength. Tom went through a series of exercises to improve his neck’s stability, including the:
- Shoulder Roll: With his head in an upright position, Tom needed to gently lift his shoulders, rolling them in a circular motion. This exercise called for 10 repetitions.
- Head Roll:Relaxing his arms against his sides, Tom would roll his head in semi-circles to stretch his neck’s muscles. The assistant recommended for him to perform 10 repetitions.
- Muscle Stretching: Letting his head hang to one side, Tom needed to gently push his head down to stretch the muscles, holding for about six seconds. He would repeat this three times.
- Muscle Strengthening Exercise: Holding one hand behind his head, Tom would push his head against his hand without letting his head move. He would hold this position for 10 seconds, repeating three times.
On top of performing these exercises, Tom needed to attend one-hour therapy sessions with the therapist assistant. The assistant also recommended Tom to implement the following steps to increase his chances of a faster recovery process:
- Ice and heat applications
- Muscle electrical stimulation
- Neck traction
- Massage therapy
The physical therapist assistant explained that Tom could continue with his swimming practices, but he needed to take precautionary measures when performing the different stroke techniques.
Tom should continue performing the freestyle technique with his head facing the pool’s bottom, but when he needed to come up for air, he needed to only move his mouth slightly above the water’s edge to minimize neck strain.
When we were at practice, I paid closer attention to his movements, making sure his neck remained in alignment with his back at all times and his flip turns were performed in a smooth motion.
A Whole New Outlook
By the time Tom completed several weeks of physical therapy, he told me that his neck felt as good as new.
He could not believe how great it felt to be able to swim without the pain and stiffness ensuing the moment he climbed out of the pool. Since then, Tom has won several awards and has taken his swimming to a whole new level of expertise.
Never again will I doubt the true importance of a physical therapist assistant, especially when it comes to getting my guys into championship material condition.