Swimming with Tendonitis

How I got tendonitis

This winter I developed painful tendonitis in my left arm for the first time in my life. I can directly relate it to moving several bookshelves worth of books and reorganizing the furniture in 3 rooms. However, it wasn’t due to carelessness or even age as far as I can tell. I have kept my upper body pretty strong in various ways and I know many younger people who have gotten tendonitis.

Still, it made me reconsider how my age might be affecting my activities. I wondered if I needed to “slow down.” I concluded pretty quickly that that would make me crazy, so I had to come up with a way to keep active and try to let it heal, which all sources indicated it would do over time.

Learning how to deal with the most intense pain and basic life activities

First, it was pretty clear that I needed to avoid the motions that caused me the most intense pain. Oddly enough, those were things like picking up a mug a certain way or trying to take my shirts off over my head. One of the main problems with the quick, sharp pain these movements produced was that it made me likely to drop things.

I found that if I slightly altered my approach to the most troubling movements, I could still get things done. I discovered I could lift something with my hand in a supine position with minimal difficulty and first, then after a while without trouble. Sometimes the trick was to just use both hands at once.

The old nursing trick of dressing the injured arm first and undressing it last came in handy. This way there was less tension in the fabric and I was freer to move my arm in the best way possible.

One of the most irritating problems was not being able to do the twisting motion to turn door knobs or open bottles. I did end up asking for a lot of help opening bottles and jars, since just the tension of holding something firmly enough to twist off a lid was an issue.

You might think I could just use the other arm for turning door knobs, but sometimes other objects (toilets in bathrooms) or placement of the door in a room (a particular corner) make one arm the more obvious choice, which is something I had never noticed before! Thankfully, I found that I could adjust how I placed my hand on the door and never had to call for help to get out of a room!

Swimming with Tendonitis

Deciding how to keep swimming

I decided to just try swimming and see how it went. I was surprised to find that although the arm seemed a bit tight at first, it relaxed after a couple of minutes. In fact, it always felt better after my normal 20 minute swim.

This made me wonder if anyone could swim with tendonitis. After all, the pressure against the water only needs to be as hard as you decide to make it. But I also realized that not everyone is comfortable and balanced in the water. If someone is struggling as they swim, plus they have a weak or painful arm, they may end up struggling more.

A few years ago, my swimming became much more relaxed and effective after I took lessons that helped me learn to swim using many of the principles of the Total Immersion swimming approach. Even after years of swimming laps and being able to swim up to a mile and a half at one time, these principles helped me immensely.

These skills were enhanced by what I read in Sheila Taormina’s book, Swim Speed Secrets. For me, the benefit of her advice was in helping me to make the most of my relaxed swimming. There was one part in particular that talked about elbow position to avoid injury. I was already using this technique, but now it helped me to keep swimming in spite of the tendonitis.

In the video below, I show where my tendonitis is and how I have been swimming with it. I don’t claim any speed records, but the speed you see me swimming in this video is at least as fast as when I took first place in my age group in a sprint triathlon about 3 years years ago. I have been gradually increasing the current rate in my swimming pool since then. Based on that and how fast I was swimming my laps, I would estimate I swim at least half a mile in 20 minutes.

And then came the pulled muscle

I was trying really hard not to strain my other arm as I compensated for the tendonitis, but, alas, with all my gardening work plus a new labrador puppy, I managed to tweak my right arm as well. My right arm is already the arm that I have some residual nerve damage in due to a ruptured disc in my neck about 10 years ago. It aches now and then for no apparent reason, but I have been able to use it fine. Now what I thought was just another ache, turned out to be a strained deltoid muscle.

As you can imagine, I was feeling a bit discouraged. Was I falling apart? Whether I was or not, I didn’t spend to much time worrying about it. Instead, I tried to put my mental energy into dealing creatively with two hurting arms. And I kept swimming.

I was quite relieved to find that swimming also made my strained muscle relax. For the first minute or so, the motion of raising my elbow out of the water felt tight and hurt a bit, but, again, after that it always felt better after the swim.

Things that are helping it all heal

Healing seemed very slow at first. I wondered if, in spite of how well swimming felt, it might be inhibiting healing. However, my arms didn’t feel any different on days that I didn’t swim and I felt better on days I did.

What I did figure out was that some firm trigger point therapy to the elbow joint made a big difference in getting the tendonitis to heal more quickly. As soon as I started to do that, not only would it feel relieved for a while afterward, but the healing began to pick up speed. And all the while I swam.

My regular hot bathes in the evening were a good time to do some trigger point work on both of my arms. The lady who gives me a massage once a month showed me how to use the weight of my own arm to create some of the pressure to release trigger points in the pulled muscle.

After a while, I found that I also needed to stretch my pulled muscle arm gently now and then. The injury must have lead me to restrict some motions more than I realized and now some of the discomfort was from the tightness setting in. Here is an interesting article about tendonitis, which also concludes that working through some pain can be beneficial.

Running and biking, too

For a few weeks, running sometimes made my pulled muscle hurt. It seemed to be more the downward motion of gravity and not the mild back and forth arm motion of running. Running was never a problem for the arm with tendonitis.

When riding my spin bike in the basement, I sit up without pressure on my arms most of the time. What little time I did learn forward to the handles wasn’t an issue. Going outside for my first bike ride with my arm troubles made me nervous, but I don’t remember any pain at all from it. It is true that it was a relatively slow ride, but consider that it was also a trail ride with many hills, dirt moguls, a very warm day, and a 5 month old puppy learning to trot along with us. Considering these added elements, I’d say a painless ride was quite a success.

Long term progress in healing of tendonitis

It is nice to have finally reached the point where I am not constantly dealing with the tendonitis. For the first few weeks, if my arm was in one position for very long, the tendon would hurt quite a bit from just moving the arm again. Now, most of the time, I don’t feel it. My garden is planted and well weeded. The puppy is growing fine. And the house is decently clean. I haven’t lost any swimming stamina and look forward to the summer months of swimming in the sunshine!