Swimming for back pain – What you need to know

You enjoy swimming, but you also have back pain. Is it safe to swim with back pain? Could swimming be helpful for back pain? We discuss what you need to know about swimming and back pain in this article.


Why swimming is a great solution for back pain

The biggest reason why swimming is a great form of exercise for people with back pain is because the water takes pressure off the spine. Everyone is buoyant in water to a certain degree. In other words, the water suspends some of your weight so your spine doesn’t have to support the entire load. Swimming can strengthen your arms, legs, and core muscles and cardiovascular system without shocking your spine.


More benefits of swimming for back pain:

  • Swimming is a good cardiovascular workout. Swimming can get your heart pumping and your lungs working. It is a great way to increase or maintain your level of physical fitness without stressing the spine like jogging, running, or land aerobics could.
  • Swimming relieves stresses on other joints. Swimming and water sports are gentler on the knees and hips than land sports. People who have hip or knee problems tend to have abnormal gaits, which can put additional strain on the spine.
  • Swimming is spine-friendly way to strengthen your core muscles. Sit-ups, crunches, and planks can tone the abdominal muscles but can also strain the back. Some types of swimming are spine-friendly ways to work your core muscles.


Best swimming strokes for back pain to try

The best swimming strokes for back pain are those that only twist, bend, or flex your spine a small amount. For example, sidestrokes or backstrokes are better than front strokes if you have back pain.


Perhaps the very best swimming stroke for back pain is a modified backstroke. In this modified backstroke, start from standing in the pool (do not dive or jump into the pool) and lie back in the water. Kick your legs as you would normally do for a modestly paced backstroke. Instead of alternating your arm motions—which would twist your spine—push yourself in the water using both arms at once. The arm motion is the same as you perform in an elementary backstroke.


Swimming strokes to avoid with back pain

No single stroke is forbidden for everyone with back pain, but the traditional swimming strokes can strain the spine. The freestyle and backstroke tend to be safer strokes for people with back pain than the butterfly or the breaststroke. That being said, the freestyle and backstroke can rotate the back under force, which can aggravate low back pain usually in the mid and upper lumbar area.


How to avoid back pain when swimming in general

  • Use a snorkel and goggles. Lifting your head to breathe during swimming can put substantial strain on the neck and back. If you get used to using a snorkel, you can keep your head just below the water line and continue to breathe. This keeps your neck and spine aligned.
  • Use a flotation device. Several companies manufacture lightweight flotation devices, ranging from flotation belts to sleek life vests. Flotation devices can help you stay afloat and take some of the strain out of treading water.
  • Use proper technique. Many exercises, from weightlifting to golf, can be done the right way or the wrong way. Swimming the wrong way exerts a lot of wasted energy and puts unusual stresses on the body, including the spine. If you decide to swim, ask a professional to show you the right way to do your chosen swimming stroke.


Is swimming a good exercise for everyone with back pain?

Swimming is an excellent cardiovascular and strength-training workout for most people, including many people with back pain. However, the main swimming strokes—namely freestyle/front crawl, butterfly, breaststroke, and backstroke—can put unwanted stresses on the spine. People with moderate to severe back pain should consider aquatic activities other than swimming using conventional strokes. If you determine that your back pain starts or gets worse when you swim, it is an excellent indication that swimming might not be the best exercise for you.

It is a good idea to talk to your doctor before starting any new exercise routine, but that may be especially true if you have back pain and are thinking about taking up swimming.


Other pool exercises for back pain to consider

For those who have access to a pool but may not be able to swim because of back pain, other pool-based or aquatic exercises are just as good and perhaps better than swimming.

  • Water aerobics. Water aerobics is one of the best exercises for people with back pain. The water helps suspend some of the person’s weight so that the spine does not have to bear all of the impact. In fact, adding a flotation device can further protect the back during water aerobics.
  • Water resistance exercises. Water resists movement much more than air, so simply moving through water can be a form of resistance exercise. Arm lifts, leg lifts, kicks, and squats help to tone muscles while putting minimal stresses on the spine.


If you’re still experiencing back pain while swimming, consider seeing a spine specialist.

Dr. Todd Lanman is the founder of Lanman Spinal Neurosurgery and the ADR Spinal Restoration Center, and is known as one of the leading innovators in spinal health. For over 30 years, Dr. Lanman has been trusted by celebrities, musicians, and top-level executives to help them overcome their back pain and regain their mobility. Contact Dr. Lanman to see how he can help you.




Is swimming good for sciatic nerve pain? 

Swimming can relieve sciatica, or pain in the sciatic nerve, but some people find it can aggravate the pain. If you stretch properly before swimming, the water exercise can soothe sciatic nerve pain.


Is swimming good for tailbone pain?

Tailbone pain, also known as coccyx pain or coccydynia, may be relieved during and immediately after swimming. This may be because swimming takes pressure off the tailbone that is caused by sitting or laying down. Note: Water slides are a bad idea for people with tailbone pain.


Is swimming good for herniated disc? 

Many patients find swimming to be a way to relieve pain and discomfort caused by a herniated or slipped disc. People with a herniated disc should swim gently, not vigorously. The goal is to exercise the body, strengthen the core muscles, and get a workout without putting stress on the spinal disc. If traditional swimming strokes are too challenging, try water-based resistance exercises.


Is swimming good for sacroiliac joint pain? 

Yes, swimming can be good for sacroiliac joint pain. People with sacroiliac joint pain often find it difficult to exercise because the space between the ilium and the sacrum is inflamed. Land-based exercises put pressure these joints, potentially worsening the inflammation and discomfort. Water relieves this pressure by supporting most of the patient’s body weight, allowing them to work out without irritating the sacroiliac joint.

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