A DEFINITE GUIDE from a pro swimmer:

What Is Swimmer's Shoulder

This is the ultimate guide to a swimmer's shoulder.

In this article, you'll learn:

  • what is swimmer's shoulder
  • why your shoulder hurts when swimming
  • swimmer's shoulder recovery time
  • everything about shoulder surgery
  • and more

If you suffer shoulder pain after swimming, this guide is for you.

Let's dive in.

Swimmer's shoulder recovery time
By Maria Rezhylo
3x World record holder in swimming & swim school owner
Jan. 23, 2023


  • What is Swimmer's Shoulder - Complete Overview
  • Getting Misdiagnosed With Swimmer's Shoulder
  • Swimmer's Shoulder Surgery

chapter 1

In this chapter, I dive deep into explaining a mysterious swimmer's shoulder diagnosis.

If you want to know the reasons why your shoulder hurts while swimming, this chapter is for you.

Let's start.

Swimmer's Shoulder Overview

swimmer's shoulder surgery

Swimmers and shoulder injury

I spent the vast majority of my life swimming. From different clubs to college teams, I’ve been through it all. I also swam professionally for 8 years. So, believe me when I tell you that a swimmer’s shoulder is one of the most common swimming injuries.

I had tendinitis, bursitis, and tears in both of my shoulders at different times in my career. It truly sucks.

I found that a swimmer's shoulder syndrome is an umbrella term for various conditions. Let me explain.

You go to the physician’s office to complain about shoulder discomfort. You are in pain, and doing any physical activity hurts. And once you mention that you’re a swimmer, boom.

"You have a swimmer’s shoulder", the doctor says. They might prescribe physical therapy but mostly likely give you a cortisone shot and call it a day. Easy and quick fix.

Except, it doesn't fix anything. So-called "swimmer's shoulder syndrome" can be a serious condition that your doctor has missed. Because you are a swimmer, you know.

Your shoulders are supposed to hurt! It's okay.

But let's actually figure out what this mysterious diagnosis is.

What is a swimmer's shoulder recovery time?

A swimmer’s shoulder recovery time depends on the severity of the case, age, and physical fitness. A minor inflammation can go away after a concise rest, a few days to a week. It can take 2 to 8 months to recover fully in cases of severe strains and tears.

What is hiding behind swimmer’s shoulder syndrome?

Historically, swimmer’s shoulder got its name because the shoulder wears are the most common injury in swimmers. It might be anything from inflammation of the different tissues in your body. Inflammation is your body responding to an irritant, showing itself in various conditions. When not treated appropriately, it can progress to a serious injury like a tear.

Possible explanations why your shoulder hurts after swimming

  • 1
    That's when a connecting cord between a bone and muscle, the tendon, gets inflamed. Depending on the severity, it can go away in 2-3 weeks with an appropriate amount of rest.
  • 2
    That’s when your tendon starts to break down due to severe inflammation. In most cases, tendinopathy is reversible when addressed on time. The healing process can take anywhere from 3 to 6 weeks with complete rest.
  • 3
    In short, the bursa helps our joints to move smoothly. Bursa can get inflamed and enlarged from repetitive movements. That can be another reason why your shoulder hurts after swimming. Bursitis can be resolved quickly with appropriate rest. If you aren’t careful, bursitis can last months and years.

chapter 2

"Oh, you just have a swimmer's shoulder!"

Wrong. This doctor was painfully wrong.

Meanwhile, I was swimming with shoulder bursitis, tendinitis, tendinopathy, and labrum dear.

Ouch. Let's see how it was.

The Pain Of Misdiagnosis

swimmer's shoulder surgery
But first
Swimmer's shoulder misdiagnosis statistics
Let's see how many athletes suffer from so-called "swimmer's shoulder" or just shoulder pain.

A recent study indicates that swimmers suffer from a swimmer's shoulder, from young high schoolers to older professionals. Numbers vary from 40% to 90%.

And then, scientists add:
So, you are telling me it might be something more serious?

Ouch, doc. Not cool.

The bottom line: always seek a second professional opinion regarding your shoulder pain after swimming.

Swimming with shoulder bursitis - how it's like

Swimming with shoulder bursitis is uncomfortable and painful. Due to the pressure that the bursa puts on surrounding muscles, swimming becomes very difficult. Forget about paddles and pulling sets because that will lead to more pain.

If not addressed on time, bursitis becomes chronic.

Swimming with shoulder bursitis consequences:

  1. Swelling. Constantly, after every practice, my left shoulder would be bigger than the right one. Fake gains.
  2. Constant pain. It was a never-ending pain train, and no amount of ice would cut it.
  3. Decreased range of motion. Every muscle surrounding my left shoulder would over-compensate. That led to muscle tightness. As a result, my range of motion decreased by a huge margin.
  4. Decreased muscle strength. After a year of swimming with bursitis, surrounding muscles started to deteriorate. By the end of year two, I had a 60% power loss on my left side.
  5. Poor swimming performance. As a result of all of the above, my swimming performance slowly but surely went downhill. To put it into perspective, from 1.00.00 100-yard breaststroker, I became 1.08 100-yard breaststroker. I also couldn't swim more than 100 yards without rest. Fun.

In conclusion, I can state that it was horrible. 0/10 - strongly don't recommend swimming with shoulder bursitis.

How to fix swimmer's shoulder before it's too late

The following are the proven ways to combat swimmer's shoulder:

  1. Rest. That alone is one of the most important things you can do for your shoulder. Although the culture of swimming normalizes shoulder pain, it's not a norm. Resting means not swimming completely until your pain is gone.
  2. NSAIDs. It's a safe way to decrease the amount of inflammation. They will only enhance the recovery if you REST.
  3. Gently stretch. Stretch the muscles, but don't overdo it. It shouldn't be painful! Slowly build up to the full range of motion.
  4. Ice, but... Icing is a good way to combat pain. If the pain is unbearable, do apply some ice. But remember that ice slows down the healing process.
  5. Slowly get back to the pool. Swimming volume directly correlates with shoulder injuries. That being said, discuss it with your coach and communicate your shoulder pain. Start with low mileage, and slowly build your way back.
  6. Work on shoulder stability. Incorporate shoulder muscle-stabilizers exercises. Work those smaller muscles within your shoulder to bulletproof them in the future.
  7. Get professional help. If shoulder pain doesn't decrease with rest, it's time to see a doctor.

chapter 3

Congrats, you made it to the unfortunate part of my story. In this chapter, I'll cover my personal experience of a swimmer's shoulder surgery.

You'll learn:
  • what is arthroscopic shoulder surgery
  • how long it takes to recover
  • post-op tips
  • and more

Swimmer's Shoulder Surgery

swimmer's shoulder surgery

What is swimmer’s shoulder arthroscopy?

Swimmer’s shoulder arthroscopy is a minimally invasive surgery used by doctors to diagnose joint injuries. The surgeon will insert a narrow tube in the shoulder and see the joint on a high-resolution screen through a small camera. Then, the surgeon can complete all the required procedures through the same narrow tube.

My swimmer’s shoulder surgery - why it happened

In 2021, I thought, "It's pointless to swim like that." And went to another doctor. He looked at my MRI scans and concluded: shoulder bursitis, tendinitis, tendinopathy, and glenoid cyst. The doctor informed me that my shoulder needed at least 6 months to heal.

Great news.

At this point, I couldn't afford more than 2 months -- I had to prepare for a big meet. Would I get the correct diagnosis earlier, I would be recovered by now. Obviously, it wasn't the case,

So, I spent the next 8 months in misery, trying to do my best. That season wasn't pretty, but, at least, I can say I tried.

Once the season was over, I showed up at the doctor’s office again. This time, I already had a labrum tear among all of the above.

My doctor advised me that if the pain is a limiting factor and I want to keep swimming, I should get arthroscopic shoulder surgery.

Just like that, on September 22, 2022, I was at the hospital, preparing for the next chapter of my recovery.
In fact, it wasn't bad at all. Yes, really. Thanks to doctor Makani who did a phenomenal job, now I live pain free.

P.S don't read comments on Reddit.

How was it

My swimmer’s shoulder surgery was… Well, it was scary.

I had never had major surgery, so I didn’t know what to expect. So, I googled and read all the horror stories on the internet, which I don’t recommend.

We all are different, and mine or someone else’s story from the internet might not be the case for you. But it will make you more anxious for nothing. Instead, just trust your doctor.

My shoulder surgery experience wasn’t half as bad and painful as people wrote on the internet.
In conclusion: I spent 9 hours at the hospital. Half of the time, I was asleep. The best of it: I received a nerve-blocking shot before the surgery, which made me feel nothing for the entire day after it all was done.

However, there are some things that you should be prepared for once the surgery is over.
swimmers shoulder shoulder surgery

Post swimmer’s shoulder arthroscopy hurdles & tips

1. Get a special pillow
Sleeping will be a challenge. Purchase a pillow for the post-shoulder surgery period beforehand. I doubted that I’d need it. Wrong. It made my sleeping with the sling so much better.

2. Get an icing machine or ice patches
It’ll most definitely help with the pain and discomfort you’ll have the first week.

Icing machines can be too pricey, but ice patches will get the job done just fine.

3. Don’t move
Don’t try to be a hero for the first few days after surgery. Instead, sleep, eat, and enjoy Netflix. Let your body get better after surgery.

4. Do wrist exercises
Get a squishy ball or another squeezing item for exercising. I got mine when leaving the hospital. Do it to get some blood flow running through your arm.


How long after laparoscopic surgery can I go swimming?

It takes 2 weeks for wounds to heal and for stitches to be removed. You can expect to shower after your stitches have been removed. After that, it’s still too early to go back to swimming due to the healing processes. Depending on the surgery, you can expect to go back to swimming after 6 weeks.

Swimmer’s shoulder arthroscopy recovery time

The average prognosis for shoulder arthroscopy recovery is 3 to 8 months. Unfortunately, you won’t be able to come back to easy and brief swimming earlier than 3 months due to the nature of the sport. Recent research indicates that, in most cases, functional recovery takes 6 months. Ultimately, the recovery period depends on the severity of the case, age, and physical fitness.

swimmer’s shoulder arthroscopy recovery

In my case

I started going to the gym 4 days post-surgery. Initially, I did some light cycling and progressively incorporated lower body exercises. My plan was to stay in shape without straining my body.

post shoulder surgery recovery

Six fix post-op, I started my physical therapy. Religiously, we focused on building back the strength of my left shoulder. To be expected, I felt the weakest I’ve felt in a few years.

In a few weeks of PT, my range of motion was almost back to normal. It took me about a month and a half to lift light weights again and two months to do my first pull-ups.

Okay, enough of bragging.

Note that I followed the recovery protocol and didn’t push my body to do something I wasn’t cleared to do. My recovery time was rather speedy than regular, so don’t try to do the same. Re-injuring equals going through all of this again.

And then I went swimming

After 2 months of attending physical therapy, my therapist cleared me to swim. Just a few laps to see how I feel. I did 1000 meters, so almost a few laps.

That swim was weird and uncomfortable. But it wasn’t as bad as I had imagined.

Technique and timing were off, but not terribly. Surprisingly, power per stroke remained about the same.

But that’s just small details. What’s more important: I didn’t feel any pain.

It was a truly freeing feeling going through the motion without excruciating pain.

All of that was achieved in 3 months after one small surgery, regular physical therapy, and a lot of patience.

What helped me to get back faster

1. Being mindful
And I don’t mean meditation. I proceeded to do new things with caution. I checked in with my physical therapist and doctor beforehand for their clearance.

2. Staying active
Recent research proves that staying active before and after surgery can significantly speed up functional recovery. That’s why I worked out 3 to 4 times per week, even in a sling.

3. High-quality recovery
I focused on fueling my body with good quality foods, drinking plenty of water, and getting adequate sleep. You can’t underestimate the importance of simple things like that. Create an environment in which your body can heal to the max.

4. Letting it go
I had no clue how long this process was going to take. And, I made peace with it. Whether it's 3, 6, or 8 months didn't matter to me. Living in pain is worse than not swimming for a couple of months.

In retrospect, I could have easily avoided this surgery. It was a sad combination of pushing myself for too long and not getting appropriate help.

Have you experienced shoulder pain or injury because of swimming?

How did you handle it?

Let me know in the comments below!