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Recognizing & Treating Synchronized Swimming Injuries

Injuries are a pretty inescapable part of life—especially as an athlete. From stubbing your toe in the middle of the night to slipping on the pool deck, you are bound to experience minor—and a few major—aches and pains at some point during your synchronized swimming career. Even something as common as a misguided breaststroke kick by a teammate can do some damage.

But how dangerous could synchro be? It’s not a contact sport, right?

Compared to rugby, no. But eggbeatering up and down the pool in small patterns with additional flips and lifts can actually lead to a lot of accidental bumping, crashing, kicking and scratching. The risk of injury further increases when you start pushing your body beyond its comfort zone and add more acrobatic moves to your synchro routines.

This guide will explain some of the more common injuries that can come as a result of being a synchronized swimmer. Although extreme injuries are rare, it’s always good to know why they occur, when to worry (instead of just “walking it off”), and the proper course of treatment.

Types of Injuries

There are two types of injuries an athlete (any athlete, not just synchro) can sustain:

  1. Overuse/chronic injury: This kind of injury is the product of a mildly traumatic action that’s repeated over and over again. In synchro, eggbeater and sculling are the most common culprits for chronic pain.
  2. Acute traumatic injury: This kind of injury is often the result of a direct hit or collision. A broken nose from a breaststroke kick to the face or a strain from a split rocket that went a little too far are both examples of acute trauma.

Overuse injuries can often lead to an acute trauma. The repetitive motion that causes chronic pain also makes you more susceptible to a serious injury that occurs during one particular instance of the same kind of action, such as a strain or torn ligament (acute traumatic injury).

Top Five Most Common Synchro Injuries

  1. Pulled/strained muscle: Often the result of a quick, overextension movement.
  2. Head injury: From bruises and scratches to concussions.
  3. Impingement: Commonly an impinged shoulder or hip.
  4. Fracture: Usually the toes or nose.
  5. Dislocation: Dislocated knees are the most frequent type.

Steps for Treating Injuries

Here is a step-by-step course for treating both chronic and acute injuries. If there are any easily recognizable signs of a serious injury – a lot of bleeding, body parts bent the wrong way – seek immediate medical attention.

Wait It Out

When you believe you are injured, you must first determine if the affected body part is just ‘hurt’ (a fairly mild issue) or moderately to severely damaged. And there is a difference.

Wait a few moments after an injury takes places before beginning treatment. This will enable you to differentiate between the various types of pain so you can more accurately assess the damage. For example, the immediate pain associated with a smack in the face or jammed finger can be comparable to a more severe injury, but after a few minutes and a little bit of moving, the pain is usually drastically reduced.

Examine the Area

After a few minutes have passed, take notice of any distinguishing characteristics. The following symptoms indicate an injury that may require immediate attention and treatment:

  • Swelling
  • Discoloration
  • Moderate to complete loss of movement
  • Numbness or a tingling sensation similar to “pins and needles”
  • Affected area is warm to the touch
  • Light touching causes moderate to severe pain

If none of these symptoms are present, attempt to move the affected body part slowly and carefully. This will give you an idea of how badly the area is injured.

RICE the Injury

The famous, tried and true, RICE method is mainly used to address acute injuries, though if a chronic injury is severe enough to require regular attention, it can be used to treat them as well.

RICE, an acronym, stands for four distinct treatments: Rest, Ice, Compression, Elevation.

While rest is important, sometimes immobilizing a body part completely for too long will actually weaken it and extend your recovery time. Talk to your coach or a physical therapist about the best course of action. They may also provide exercises to help heal the area and prevent future injury.

Rest: This step, though important, is hopefully self-explanatory. Continuing to use an injured part of the body will hurt and almost always make the injury worse. It will not only delay or prevent healing, but also decrease your chances for a complete recovery.

Reduce the amount of repetitions in practice that involve your injury, or for more severe injuries, it may be best to stay out of the pool for a while.

Ice: Putting something cold on the injured part, or submerging it in cold/ice water, helps to reduce or prevent swelling and pain.

The injured part should be iced at regular intervals, though never for sustained lengths of time. A reasonable icing period is 15 to 20 minutes, which should be followed by a warm-up period (no ice) of equal length. For example, 15 minutes on, 15 minutes off, repeated for an hour or two. If you’re using the ice bath method, one 15 minute dip is enough.

Ask your doctor or physical therapist if you want to do more than one per day.

Make Your Own Ice Bath

Ice baths with circulating temperature controlled water are available at many physical therapy offices, but you can make your own at home! Just fill up your tub with cold water and ice. The target temperature is 15 degrees Celsius (59 degrees Fahrenheit).

Stay in the tub no longer than 15 minutes.

Compression: Swelling prevents a timely recovery because it restricts blood flow; the more healthy blood that reaches the area, the quicker the injury will heal.

Compressing the injury will keep swelling at bay and promote the circulation of that new blood.

When you’re not icing, be sure to keep the area wrapped. Beware of wrapping too tightly, however (throbbing is a bad sign)—that could also restrict blood flow and defeat the purpose.

Elevation: Elevating the injured area will also help to reduce swelling and is most effective when the injured area is above the heart. (Use pillows or folded blankets to prop-up the injury, if necessary). Just make sure you don’t overstretch or further aggravate the injury.

Hot Tip: Using Ice & Heat

Ice is more commonly used for acute injuries because it reducing swelling, which is a more common symptom of an acute injury. Heat, on the other hand is often used for chronic injuries, because it increases blood flow to the affected area.

Often, athletes will use both ice and heat on the same injury (no, not at the same time!). Ice is used early on in treatment, while heat can be used later to help with any pain or tightness that occurs as you heal or reintroduce activity.

Seeking Outside Assistance

Note that all the RICE steps aren’t always the best option for all acute injuries. For example, ice is great for a broken nose, but it would be difficult (and painful) to use ‘compression’ to help it heal. Occasionally an injury will require a trip to the hospital or doctor’s office.

Along with noticeably broken bones, excessive bleeding, and/or a complete loss of feeling in the injured body part, any of the following warrant an immediate examination by a medical professional:

  • A drastic increase in pain or swelling
  • Pain or swelling moves to another area of the body
  • Red marks appear near the injured area
  • The injured area becomes numb or tingly
  • A fever
  • No signs of improvement after five to seven days

Injuries Happen

Injuries will happen, but luckily most are relatively minor and easily treatable. Overcoming them only makes you stronger, physically and mentally!

Learn more about distinguishing bumps and bruises from more serious injuries, and how to treat them in order to keep synchronized swimming at your highest level.
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