Swimming is a low-impact exercise that is easy on your joints, but faulty stroke mechanics may lead to neck pain. Because swimming depends so heavily on technique, any imperfections affect your speed and efficiency in the water. When you swim harder to go faster, you can strain already taxed neck muscles, leading to pain and stiffness.
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In your neck area, seven bony vertebrae surround your spinal cord as it descends from your brain down toward your lower torso. Multiple nerve offshoots branch from the cervical spine to your arms and upper torso. Any arthritic changes to your vertebrae that surround the column can result in tingling numbness and pain anywhere in your upper body as well as in your neck area. Preexisting injuries also might leave you stiff and sensitive in your neck area. Generally, swimming helps strengthen supporting muscles and alleviates pain from stiff, sore necks. When you feel worse after your workout than before, though, you should analyze your stroke technique.
Swimming the freestyle stroke might lead to neck pain if you do not keep your head aligned with your body. You ideally keep your head and your body in a straight line throughout the entire stroke. A proper, neutral head position leaves you looking at the bottom of the pool when you swim freestyle. Looking slightly forward toward the end of the pool puts stress on your spinal column and neck muscles, leading to stiffness or pain. Keep your head aligned with your spine during the breaststroke too, particularly when you scull above the water.
Beginning swimmers sometimes overcompensate when they breathe, lifting heads far out of the water. Raising your head too high, tucking it tightly against your shoulder or rotating your head too much not only causes stiffness and pain but also tingling and numbness, according to USA Swimming. Rotating your body during your freestyle stroke minimizes the need to lift or twist your neck, and breathing on both sides helps avoid strained neck muscles. The backstroke does not cause as many problems, because you do not need to move your head to breathe. For the butterfly stroke, focus on breathing early in your stroke, before your arms recover above the water.
When your neck aches after swimming, take time out from swimming your usual routine. Vary your workout by swimming a different stroke or do water jogging or running to keep your fitness levels up while you recover. Meet with a coach and discuss your neck problems. A few sessions spent improving your technique can reduce or eliminate any future neck pain or stiffness. When your neck pain gets worse or does not improve with rest, consult your physician or healthcare professional for advice.