Although I can’t claim to be an advanced surfer, and my location in Canada means that only through travel can I hit the waves, I do love it. I feel the independence of being alone on the board, legs in the water as I watch the sets, waiting for the dream wave. In my case, a small, gentle and welcoming wave. There is no better feeling of being at one with nature than by moving with it.
I am a chiropractor who deals primarily with sport, and I recently developed a deeper desire to know surfing from an injury standpoint. It only made sense to merge two passions to better educate myself on both.
There are two categories of injury that can be sustained by surfing: Traumatic and Repetitive. Traumatic is like the time I fractured my ankle surfing in Tofino, and then more commonly, repetitive, manifesting in the form of a strain through overuse. Since these are the more common type of injuries we’re likely to come into contact with, I’m going to dive deeper into discussing them.
Let’s start by taking a look at what surfing entails!
Paddling and sitting on the board take up the majority of the time in the water, while riding the wave itself takes up less than 5% of the time.
This means we can safely assume that most of the repetitive strain injuries come from paddling. I have researched three areas of the body that can suffer after these sessions and compiled a list of yoga poses to help repetitive strain injuries from surfing.
The neck is held in extension for long periods of time when paddling and looking out at the wave sets. It can also be rotated in one direction or the other depending on the direction that the surfer is headed. This can create stress in the area below the skull, called the sub-occipital area. This physical stress can cause headaches and chronic neck pain.
Neck pain from surfing can also arise from a muscle called the levator scapula, which attaches the neck to the shoulder blade. This muscle is hyper-contracted with paddling, and can also cause headaches and/or shoulder pain. Prolonged neck congestion can cause neurological pain, numbness and tingling in the arms and fingers as the nerves for the upper limb come out of the neck vertebra.
Lie on your back on a flat surface. Bend the knees to release the lower back. Keeping the back of the skull in contact with the surface you are lying on, on an exhale make double chins by flexing your neck and pressing the back of the neck towards the floor.
Repeat 10 times holding for 5 seconds at the bottom of the movement.
Levator Scapula Stretch
(with Upper Trapezoid and Scalenes).
- While seated, lengthen through the crown of the head and then laterally flex the neck to bring left ear towards left shoulder. Hold for 5 breaths.
- Keeping the neck same as position 1, rotate your chin towards your left shoulder, hold for 5 breaths.
- This last variation is optional; moving from position 1/2, let your head fall back (in the direction behind your shoulder) to open up the front neck musculature.
- Repeat on opposite side.
This is one of the most common areas injured in surfing, as the shoulder is heavily used during sessions with a lot of paddling. Paddling involves overhead rotation of the shoulder, which can put strain on the rotator cuff and bicep brachii tendon. A healthy shoulder is crucial for surfing; it is the power that drives you past the break as well as the power propelling the board for you to take off before the wave takes over.
For shoulder rehabilitation or preventing shoulder injuries, the best thing is to strengthen the scapular stabilizers (keep the shoulder blade connected to the body) and mobilize the shoulder stabilizers (the rotator cuff).
Cow Faced Pose.
(shoulders only version)
This will mobilize the external rotators of the top arm, and the internal rotator of the bottom arm, and open the shoulder capsule.
Upward Facing Dog.
Focus on lifting the crown of the head up and drawing the shoulder blades down to activate the lower traps. To activate the lats, pull the chest forward.
The low back is similar to the neck in that it is held in extension during the paddle portion of surfing. We all have a natural curve of the low back called the lumbar lordosis, but this curve is accentuated with the entire spine in extension. Tight hip flexors, weak abdominal muscles and/or improper technique can contribute to low back pain, joint inflammation, muscle strain and disc herniations.
On top of the poses below, stretch the hip flexors before going out for a paddle. Take a nice deep forward fold and activate the core by lengthening the tailbone and drawing the navel in towards the spine.
Start in child’s pose and allow the low back to stretch out in the counter position of flexion. After the back feels more open, grab both heels, tuck chin, and activate lower belly and round back up. Keep the hands on the heels until the arms straighten as the back goes into full flexion.
Lie on back, open the arms and anchor both shoulder blades to the earth. Bend knees and drop them to the left. Let your gaze fall over to the right. Ensure both shoulder blades are flat on the ground. Repeat on opposite side.