Swimming can be a great exercise option if you’re prone to back spasms—the involuntary contraction of lower back muscles.
"A spasm is simply an overcontraction of a muscle or group of muscles that can be caused from anything ranging from a pinched nerve, nerve irritation, dehydration, overexertion, and weakness," says Timothy R. Corker, a physical therapist based in Paoli, Pa.
The buoyancy you have in the water reduces stress on joints. The sport also promotes back and core strength that helps avoid and prevent back pain in the first place.
But as with any recurring injury or condition, if you’re experiencing pain or discomfort you should first consult with a doctor to develop a swimming program that won't exacerbate current issues. Some doctors might recommend avoiding certain strokes, others might determine that you shouldn't be swimming at all or recommend exploring more gentle pool activities, such as water therapy.
The best way to avoid back spasms? Take steps to avoid the condition altogether. That means staying committed to proper hydration, form, and rest, as well as warm-ups and warm-downs.
What you do before and after you swim plays a big role in prevention, says Alex Tauberg, a chiropractor in Pittsburgh.
Tauberg recommends performing dynamic stretches before a swimming workout and intentionally choosing movements that get blood flowing to the muscles you’re preparing to use.
"Activating the muscles before working out warms them up and prepares them for the loads they will be placed under," Tauberg says. "This can reduce the likelihood that you will suffer a spasm during the workout."
Need some suggestions? Tauberg recommends arm circles, lunges, monster walks, and arm swings.
After getting out of the pool, if you’re prone to back spasms, opt for static stretches that help loosen tight muscles, such as the hurdlers stretch, lunging hip flexor stretch, wall-assisted pec stretch, or a cross-body arm-adduction stretch.
"This helps to keep the muscles loose and can prevent them from spasming after the workout is complete," Tauberg says.
If you’re experiencing pain during a workout, consult with a coach or expert to make sure that your form isn't part of the problem.
You can also try performing some light static stretching mid-workout, Tauberg says, or work on strengthening your core.
"It's generally advisable to strengthen the core outside of the pool,” Tauberg says. "Having a stronger core reduces your chance of having future episodes and can reduce the amount of pain you feel when you do have an episode."
You can also try flipping over.
"Flipping over on your back can often relieve spasms, as it relaxes your back," says Donna F. Brown, a retired nurse and athlete who swims, runs, and teaches yoga.
That's because backstroke requires significantly less hyperextension, U.S.A. Olympic Swimming team physician Scott Rodeo told The New York Times.
You might also try using a snorkel to avoid twisting your body while you’re breathing, or working with a physical therapist in or out of the water.
Regardless, it's important to consult with a doctor as you find strategies that work for you.
"In the event that you have back spasms repeatedly, it would be in your best interest to
seek out a knowledgeable medical provider to properly diagnose the root cause and
provide the most appropriate treatment to get you back in the pool pain-free," Corker says.