neck pain

Neck pain while swimming is a common complaint among amateur and professional swimmers. In most cases, poor technique and overuse cause neck pain while swimming, but they don’t have to any more. If you experience neck pain in the pool, try these tips to relieve the discomfort.

Top Causes of Swimmers’ Neck Pain

Consider for a moment everything going on in and around the neck. Many people consider only the back area- between the base of the skull and the top of the shoulders – the neck, but it is the entire area. In the neck area are the cervical spine, the spinal cord, nerves, muscles, and tendons. The neck can move in many directions, and many of the muscles used in swimming connect at the neck.

A swimmer’s neck pain can be caused by any one of the following in or out of the pool:

  • Collision in the water with another swimmer, the bottom of the pool, or the wall
  • Poor technique
  • Faulty body mechanics
  • Overuse injury or strain
  • Swimmer’s shoulder
  • Dryland injury or strain
  • Tilting the head often during the day
  • Poor posture
  • Heavy bags
  • Improper breathing technique
  • Kickboard training
  • Old whiplash injury
  • Back pain, stress, or injury

18 Tips to Relieve Neck Pain

Neck pain threats lurk all around. It’s no wonder so many swimmers feel the pinch and stiffness after spending time in the pool. If you experience pain, numbness, tingling, soreness, or limited range of motion, try these tips to relieve your pain.

1. See a physical therapist

Swimmers experiencing any kind of pain or mobility should seek professional advice. A physical therapist will identify your limitations and concerns, and create a rehabilitation plan that helps prevent and elimination swimming-related neck pain.

2. Rest your neck and apply ice often

If you experience neck pain in the pool or after practice, let your coaching team know. Don’t push through the pain. Rest your neck and apply ice to the area [remember ice can reduce pain, if you think ice may impair healing, then do not ice]. To prevent damage to the skin or excessive numbness, do not apply the ice directly to the skin, and be careful you don’t fall asleep on the ice pack.

3. Get a massage

Who doesn’t need an excuse to get a massage? Massage has many benefits for swimmers. Massage can improve range of motion, decrease pain and swelling, warm up the muscles, cool down to body, reduce fatigue, and provide much-needed relaxation.

4. Improve stroke technique

Swimmers who experience neck pain in the pool or immediately after a workout need to evaluate their stroke technique. Pay close attention to your head and neck:

  • Backstroke- ensure the face is parallel to the water and the spine is straight. The front of your neck needs to be strong enough to keep your head on the water. 
  • Breaststroke- Do not look up at the end of the pool when you inhale. Your face should be looking at the water, and your neck should be straight.
  • Butterfly- Do not jerk the head from side to side; this can be the result of poor timing and rhythm.
  • Freestyle- keep the head aligned with the rest of the body in streamline position. Look straight down at the bottom of the pool, and avoid over twisting your neck when breathing.

To determine if your stroke and body alignment contribute to your neck pain, have a coach evaluate your technique when you are in the pool. Many fixes that eliminate neck pain may not have anything to do with your neck at all.

5. Improve breathing with breathing drills

Breathing is one of the biggest factors to consider when reducing neck pain in the pool. When breathing, make sure you breathe evenly on both sides. Utilize breathing drills to improve technique and to alleviate pressure and strain on the neck.

  • Don’t armpit breathe
  • Don’t breathe too high on fly/breast
  • Don’t sit up on backstroke

6. Fix the flip

Your flip can contribute to your neck pain. While there is risk for colliding with the wall, neck position during the flip can cause pain and strain, too. When initiating the turn, do not hyperextend the neck. Tuck it in.  

7. Lengthen and strengthen the neck

Neck stretches and strength training can improve neck pain. Lengthening relieves tightness and limitations, while strengthening improves stability and support.

8. Lengthen the suboccipitals

The suboccipitals are the muscles in the neck that connect at the base of the occipital bone, or the bone at the base of the skull. The spinal cord passes through this bone. The muscles are responsible for flexion, side-to-side movement, and head rotation.

When lengthening the suboccipitals, the goal is to stretch the muscles on top of the neck and below the head to stretch, not to stretch the entire neck. It is a targeted process. Try this stretch:

  • Interlace your fingers behind your head. Keep your neck straight. Gently pull down on the head, bringing your chin down, until you feel the stretch at the base of the skull. The head should move, the neck must not.

9. Strengthen the deep neck flexors

Deep neck flexors require more and more attention as people sit in front of screens all day and hang out in office chairs. The deep neck flexors are the muscles that run along the front side of your neck, behind the trachea. These muscles are responsible for flexing the neck, but poor posture, overuse, and a general lack of knowledge about these muscles leaves them vulnerable.  Wake them up with these exercises:

  • While sitting straight in a chair, control your head while you look up at the ceiling. You will feel the stretch in the front of your neck. Hold it for 10 seconds.
  • While lying on your back, with your head propped up slightly on a towel, press the side of your head with your fingers. When you fingers apply pressure, stabilize your neck to resist pushing your head over. Hold this for 10 seconds before moving on to the other side.
  • Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart and your back touching the wall. Gently nod your head, but keep the base of your skull pinned to the wall. Hold for 10 seconds.

10. Lengthen the scalenes

Your scalene muscles are often referred to as your deep breathing muscles. You have three scalene muscles. The roles of the scalene muscles are lateral bending of the neck, and to pull up your first two ribs to improve breathing. Tight scalenes prevent effective breathing and they pull your head forward into poor posture. Try these stretches to lengthen the scalenes

11. Carry your gear bag differently

Think about all the things you load in your gym bag. It gets heavy after a while, and if you carry it one shoulder, which is usually your dominant shoulder, you can strain the shoulder and the neck. Try switching it up or balancing the weight by carrying a gym backpack.

12. Foam roll the thoracic spine

In overhead athletes, it is important to work the thoracic spine.  Mobility in the thoracic spine allows you to complete the overhead movements and improve range of motion. Foam rolling the thoracic spine releases tension in the back muscles, which connect to the neck.

  13SMR the trapezius

The trapezius is one of the most important muscles, especially for swimmers. The trapezius is the large muscle in the back that attaches to rotating, stabilizing the shoulder blades, and neck extension. It attaches at the base of the skull, the clavicle, the acromion, and the spine. Think about the movements of a swimmer’s upper body. The trapezius is a major force, which means it can become inflamed, tight, or strained. Loosen it up with an effective trapezius stretch to relieve tension and pain in the neck.

14. Learn how to use your lower trap compared to your upper trap

Did you know you can use different parts of your traps? Athletes primarily think about the upper trap, but the lower trap is just as important. Plus, giving the upper trap a rest reduces impingement in the shoulder and neck. So, how do you do it?

15. Use a snorkel

Instead of straining your head to keep it above water, train with a snorkel instead. Using a snorkel keeps your body in alignment. Try a body roll with the snorkel.

Kick your legs while you gently roll your body bilaterally. You can either stay in one place or move forward. The key here is to touch the top of the shoulder to the top of the water each time you roll. This will loosen the muscles in the shoulders, which will promote relief in the neck.

16. Keep your head down on your start

Keep your head down when you start to avoid strain. When your head’s up, it creates drag. When you propel through the water, the water crashes against your head like a wall. This can cause injury and pain. Remember, streamline is the safe line.

17. Don’t overtuck your head on your turn

I recommended tucking in your chin on your turn, but you have to be careful not to overtuck, too. Overtucking causes hyperflexion. Hyperflexion occurs in car accidents and sports, and the result is damage to the cervical discs.

18. Improve your vestibular system

It sounds complicated, but it’s not. Your vestibular system is the sensory system responsible for your sense of balance and spatial position. Essentially, it gives you a sense of coordination and balance. So, how do you improve it?

  • Try tai chi
  • Try the BOSU
  • Talk to a physical therapist about vestibular training

Don’t suffer through neck pain during swimming any more. Now you can be pain free with one or more of the techniques for relief.