The Warm Weather Guide to Swimming and Back Pain

Now that the weather is getting warm, communities are opening their pools, and more people are joining gyms to get into shape. If you have back pain, swimming may be an excellent option since it provides low-impact aerobic conditioning – and it’s easy on the spine!
While popular forms of exercise like running, cycling and weight lifting can damage an already-sore back, swimming is a gentle alternative with practically no impact on the spinal structures. Because the water supports your body, you can exercise without stressing your joints and bones. For many people with severe back pain, joint pain, and osteoarthritis, swimming and pool therapy may be part of the recommended therapy.
However, swimmers must still be cautious when exercising, to avoid causing additional back or neck pain. For example, the lower back can become hyper-extended during front strokes (the crawl or breaststroke and butterfly) while swimming. Additionally, the upper spine, or neck, can be jerked backward repetitively during front strokes as you take breaths while swimming.
You can take precautions to avoid such pain and discomfort while swimming. Here are some tips for safe swimming:
  • Use proper form for front strokes, such as the crawl or breaststroke, while swimming; keep body level in the water (hold lower abdominal muscles up and in) and keep the head straight rather than lifted
  • If preferable, swim with side or back strokes instead of front strokes.
  • Roll the body to the side and keep the chin in when taking breaths during the crawl, rather than jerking the head backward, to reduce the amount of movement in the neck while swimming.
  • Use a snorkel to eliminate the need to move the head for breaths.
  • Wear goggles to reduce improper head movements when trying to keep water out of the eyes.
  • Use flotation devices (noodles, boards, life preservers, wet vest) to maintain proper form when swimming.
If you find that swimming worsens your back or neck condition, consider switching to pool therapy. This type of exercise provides you with the water support of swimming, but it prevents the repetitive motion of certain strokes. Even walking from side to side in the pool in at least waist deep water can benefit people with back pain – while providing the exercise your body needs.
Before you begin any exercise program, including swimming and pool therapy, consult with your spine specialist to be sure the movements are safe for your condition. Learn more about therapies for chronic back pain here.