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Locked shoulders: Can swimming “unfreeze” the painful shoulder?

Not long time ago, I was approached by a man at the pool telling me: “I have locked shoulders. My doctor told me that they are almost “frozen” and that I have to go swimming to “unfreeze” them.” My first question for him was:What do you do when you’re not at work? The guy in his early 30s was in the busines world, but he spent most of his time working on the computer. When he wasn’t working, he usually did nothing else. It means that he didn’t walk much, and he had no physical activities. What happened? Due to his continuous poor posture and sitting at his desk, he had reduced the movement of the shoulder part of his body, while feeling increased pain and stiffness in his shoulders. Sometimes he couldn’t even hold a pencil as he felt all in pain.

Apart from a regular therapy prescribed by his doctor, he was also recommended to take up swimming to enhance the effects of the therapy, and to alleviate the pain in the shoulder. Generally speaking, swimming is great for shoulders as it ensures the exercises for the muscles without excessive pressure on joints. It also provides an efficient aerobic training which is unlikely to cause a hip, knee or joint strains.

I engaged myself in the process of unfreezing (unlocking) his shoulders by swimming, under the conditions that he comes to swim for one hour three times a week continuously for next six months. And we will see about the next steps. He said yes, and jumped into the pool and started swimming.

What is the cause of locked, frozen shoulders, and when does it happen?

It is a problem commonly faced by people in their 40s, it is most common in women, but if we take a look at the practice, it most usually occurs in younger population, starting in puberty. Why? Due do a reduced physical activity. People spend most of their time in the sitting position in front of a TV rather than walking. They often hold their tablets, phones in their hands or they sit with their shoulders down as they are working at their desk. By doing so, they have a very bad posture which causes a neck pain and the pain in the shoulders. The pain and the posture cause a limited movement of shoulders, even though shoulders, as joints, have the largest extent of mobility on our body.

How can swimming help you to unfreeze the painful shoulder?

It is not easy but it is possible. The best results are made with regular swimming. Swimming and exercises in the water can help you alleviate the pain and enhance the functions in the wide range of muscle and bone conditions such as a frozen shoulder. Also, swimming and exercises in the water put less pressure on the joints than any other dry activities.

Swimming backstrokes is the most effective technique for locked shoulders as it basically boils down to sliding on the water surface, without significant head moves. The focus here is on the upper part of the body to reduce the pain while moving. Later, when the shoulder becomes stronger, we can introduce a free (crawl) technique. Breathing exercises in the water are also recommended for reducing the pain. But for the start, it is necessary that you warm up well and stretch your shoulder in the water 10 to 15 minutes before swimming, and also repeat that after the training.

These are some of the activities, exercises in the water that could help you gradually unlock your shoulder:

1. Warming up and stretching: It is not recommended to do “deep” stretching or excessive stretching before the body and your limbs get warm enough and become more flexible, only after that we can do some serious stretching in the shallow part of the pool and the most important and the most intensive ones are to be done at the end of the training. Warming up should always be done gradually and carefully while making your body work with a couple of exercises in the standing position, using the water pressure and then swimming itself.

2. Breathing: With beginners, it is recommended to start with the basic elements of floating on the stomach while holding a breath as long as it is possible, while in floating on the back they should try to rest and breathe deeply. Also, one of the excellent exercises is to take a deep breath, float for about 10 seconds and then breathe out and let your body sink down slowly in the shallow part of the pool (about 1m). Consecutive breathing in through your mouth and breathing out through your nose while holding onto the pool’s edge can always be done as a recovery exercise.

3. Backstroke technique: If a patient is not experienced or good at swimming, what you need to do first is to teach him a proper backstroke technique. Crawl would be pretentious at this point and it takes some time, so it’s best to start with the backstroke technique with a gradual introduction of crawl. Backstroke technique makes the manipulation of the shoulder part much easier and hence brings to a larger scope of moves. One of the things that matter in the backstroke technique is the shoulders movement and their opening.

4. Free style (crawl): Definitely one of the crucial techniques in rehabilitation, apart from the backstroke, but due to its breathing nature it takes more time to master the right technique which does not put much pressure on the spine and the neck, the pelvis and the lower parts of the body. What is extremely helpful in learning how to make a proper stroke and head posture, and the entire body after all, is the frontal snorkel which helps you swim crawl without breathing. After half a year of continuous swimming three times a week, the result is more than obvious, and we also got the confirmation by the doctor.

I received a letter which I read out loud:

“Today I saw the results of your work. First of all, you did a great job! If you agree, I’d like to present you the official results: He has made a great progress – both in terms of biomechanics and the understanding of the problem, a new record in the superficial apnea 2min and 5 seconds, which is great! His shoulders now have a wider range of moves and the pelvis itself is much more flexible, while deep spine muscles are much stronger than before. We worked on a better body posture in the water and on sliding, as well as on a better efficiency of his strokes (stroke length, better and frequent use of the left hand). We also worked on some leg moves and pelvis movement, so that he could gain a better control over the upper part of the body and stabilise the strokes. And when it comes to the crawl technique, breathing in came naturally…”

Due to the work he still does, mostly while sitting in a hunched position, the hero of this story stills comes to swimming three times a week, he feels well both physically and mentally, and the painful shoulder has been fully unlocked and unfrozen!

To prevent a locked and frozen shoulder happening to you or your children, you should use swimming as a prevention, be active both in the water and on the dry as much as you can. Unlock and open the door of the nearest pool and of the quality life you and your children deserve.

Life is better when you are swimming!


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