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How Does Competing in Water Sports Impact Your Spine?


At the Rio 2016 Olympic Games, some of the most popular sports occur in the water. Whether it be swimming, diving, or rowing, Team USA athletes have been training hard for a long time to get their chance to win the gold.

Here’s what you need to know about the spine and the impact it can have on everyday athletes, especially elite athletes like the ones competing for Team USA.

Spine 101

The spine is the axis of the body with all of the extremities attached to it and is the core of motion and stability. The spine is made up of 4 parts: the cervical, thoracic, lumbar, and sacral spines. Each of these areas is made up of bones, discs, facet joints and ligaments. The bony spine serves to protect the spinal cord and the nerves that emanate from it.

The intense nature of personal training and sport-specific conditioning routines of elite athletes, such as Team USA athletes, result in the development of strong muscles and bones, which fortify their spines.

The Difference Between Swimmers and Rowers

Both Team USA swimmers and rowers train around the clock to be able to endure their chronic, repetitive sports. Despite their strong core musculature, these athletes may be prone to injury. Back injuries that rowers sustain seem to be more common than those sustained by swimmers. This is due to the fact that rowing techniques involve explosive coordination of nearly all of their trunk, arm and leg muscles to propel the boat through the water. Swimmers are more prone to shoulder or hip injuries, but can also sustain spinal muscle strains. Overuse and straining can lead to back pain and limitation of the athlete’s ability to perform and often result in the attention of an orthopedic specialist.

How to Prevent Injury

When it comes to preventing injury there are several things that athletes should include in their daily routines. Arguably the most critical aspects to take into consideration include body mechanics and condition training their muscles to maintain good head and neck positions while keeping the spine in the neutral position during the execution of their sport. Proper stretching is important both before and after competition.  Cross-training can also help strengthen muscles to optimize performance during a sporting event and help avoid injury.

Dr. Andrew Sama

Dr. Andrew Sama specializes in the evaluation and surgical management of all traumatic, degenerative, and deformity-related conditions of the cervical, thoracic, and lumbosacral spine. Board certified in orthopedic surgery, he believes in a team approach to patient care. He is an active member of many spine societies, academic committees, and editorial review boards. He is a Fellow of the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons and a Diplomat of the American Board of Orthopedic Surgeons.

The information provided in this blog by HSS and our affiliated physicians is for general informational and educational purposes, and should not be considered medical advice for any individual problem you may have. This information is not a substitute for the professional judgment of a qualified health care provider who is familiar with the unique facts about your condition and medical history. You should always consult your health care provider prior to starting any new treatment, or terminating or changing any ongoing treatment. Every post on this blog is the opinion of the author and may not reflect the official position of HSS. Please contact us if we can be helpful in answering any questions or to arrange for a visit or consult.