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by Kelly O’Mara

December 30, 2019

A torn labrum for swimmers isn’t uncommon, but doesn’t have to mean the end of your workouts

Shoulder injuries are not uncommon among swimmers and, perhaps, the most common is a torn labrum. If accurately diagnosed and treated, most swimmers can come back from shoulder injuries. In fact, Natalie Coughlin tore her labrum when she was still in high school and went on to win multiple Olympic medals.

If not treated, though, you might find a torn labrum can become debilitating and prevent you from swimming.

Surgery is certainly an option for a torn labrum, but because of the recovery period required and the risk of repeat injury, some swimmers prefer to try nonsurgical methods first.

Fortunately, there are some options for dealing with torn labrum shoulder recovery without surgery, though you should talk to your doctor about living with a torn labrum and what’s best for your specific tear.

What’s a Torn Labrum?

The shoulder labrum is a cartilage disc in your shoulder attached to the socket. That thick cartilage around the ball of your shoulder joint helps it to move freely and works with the cartilage from the humerus bone. There are also some tendons, like those from the bicep, that attach to the labrum.

There are many different ways a labrum can tear. It could simply fray through repetitive motion. You could get minor tears in the cartilage once it’s weakened or frayed, which can become bigger or more serious. It’s also possible an accident or impact forces the labrum out of the socket and causes a major tear.

A “superior labrum from anterior to posterior,” also known as a SLAP tear, is a tear from front to back.

Symptoms of a torn labrum include pain in your shoulder, especially when your arm is overhead; a clicking or grinding sound or feeling in your shoulder; and potentially instability and weakness in the shoulder. A torn labrum can be diagnosed with some basic tests from your doctor and imaging, such as an MRI or a CT-arthrogram. However, there can be misdiagnoses or missed small tears.

Options for a Shoulder Labral Tear

If you’re not experiencing severe symptoms and the tear is minor, then it’s certainly possible to simply live with a torn labrum. Some athletes find simply adjusting their activity or even their stroke can help relieve symptoms. Taking time off of swimming—if that’s what’s causing the tear—can also give the inflammation a chance to settle down.

For serious labral tears, surgery may be necessary. It’s not possible for a tear to fully heal on its own, but if the tear is minor, then it can be possible to adjust and strengthen the other muscles around the tear to live with it. Many nonsurgery options are actually attempts to strengthen the muscles around the tear and adapt to take pressure off the weak area, though it depends on what kind of tear you have and how severe it is.

If you opt for surgery for a shoulder labral tear, then it typically starts with a small incision and insertion of a camera to see the full extent of damage. If it’s minor, then it can sometimes be simply cleaned up with any damaged cartilage being cut away. If the tear is major, then it may require a more extensive procedure and potentially re-attaching the labrum to the shoulder.

Before you can get back to swimming, you’ll have to go through rehab and physical therapy. That can take anywhere from two to six months, depending on how serious the surgery was. Finding a rehab specialist who understands swimming will help you get back in the pool faster. You don’t want to over-stress the labrum while it’s still healing, especially if it needs to reattach to bone, because then you could end up back where you started. However, with rehab, many swimmers are able to get back in the pool and back to their regular level of activity.

Before opting for surgery, though, you might prefer to start with physical therapy and various exercises. Depending on the specifics of the tear and medical history, some swimmers can find relief without having to undergo surgery.

How to Heal a Torn Labrum Without Surgery

Your options for torn labrum shoulder recovery without surgery depend a lot on what kind of tear you’re trying to deal with. Talk to your doctor about your level of activity and what you want to be able to do with your shoulder.

The best prevention for a torn labrum, in the first place, is to strengthen the muscles around the shoulder. Having a strong and balanced shoulder, back, and core can stop you from putting too much pressure on the labrum.

Once the pain eases, you can also implement some rehab exercises to the same effect. For example, one rotator cuff exercise is to lay facedown on a workout bench with your arms extended at your sides with palms up; lift your palms toward the ceiling, squeezing your shoulder blades together. There are a number of exercises to help with range of motion and strengthening. Talking to your doctor or a physical therapist might be the most effective way to figure out what rehab exercises could relieve the pain for your specific tear.

Because it’s important to bring down the pain and inflammation around the initial tear, some athletes also use ice or other anti-inflammatory techniques before starting rehab.

It might also be possible to adjust your stroke by pulling more from your core, so as not to over-stress your rotator cuff. Talking to both a knowledgeable swim coach and a doctor will help you figure out what your options are for swimming with a torn labrum.


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