Can Kayaking harm cervical spine?


I’m 42 and have been flat water paddling for a ten years. I’ve paddled ~15,000km in that time.

Recently I’ve developed C6/C7 right sided disc herniation. c5/6 is bad too, but hasn’t fully ruptured yet. I’ll need a fusion or posterior decompression soon.

I am trying to understand how much (if any) the paddling has contributed.

My physio says don’t worry about it. Two surgeons have said to keep paddling, and it’s unlikely to be a cause. But still I wonder if those millions of additional neck rotations have added to the wear and tear on my spine?

Anyone have any experience with it?

Neck rotations?

Me too… Wondering about that… my torso rotates but not the neck… Have no idea if that contributes to the c spine issue

I have a disaster of a spine, mostly lower. After years of paddling, my upper spine is fine. Maybe the genetic dice took a bad roll on your upper.

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No such experience. Given the location of C6 and C7, don’t understand how your neck could be rotating while doing a forward stroke (with correct torso rotation) unless you’re not sighting the horizon and looking over your shoulder on each stroke. Are you?

If you rotate your torso and keep your head facing straight ahead, then your neck is rotating about the torso. The only way you can rotate your shoulders from side to side and keep your head motionless is through rotation of the cervical spine.

I have cervical issues and paddling canoe or kayak makes it feel better. I tend to agree with the surgeons.


It a surgeon tells you to keep paddling, go for it as long as you can stand the pain.

Yes I’m no doubt prone to C spine degeneration. That’s why I’m curious as to whether paddling can worsen it.

Yes, exactly. You rotate your torso and turn your neck to keep looking forward.

Seems people struggle to understand this concept. Even my surgeons a long time to understand what I was talking about.

Neck rotation is relative to torso. If your torso is rotating and your head isn’t then your neck joints are rotating.

I don’t really trust them. They didn’t seem to understand how paddling could involve neck rotation.

Good to know!

So multiple experts say don’t worry about the kayaking but you thought you could get better info on here?
If Angus Young can survive 40 years of banging his head I think my neck is safe with a lifetime of paddling.


Some paddlers over rotate.

Sorry about some of those comments. some family things going on.

I Like pblanc’s comment following.

Well, I have a friend who broke his neck whitewater kayaking when he capsized in Tablesaw rapid on the Ocoee River, and struck an underwater rock with his helmeted head. So in answer to your question, yes kayaking definitely has the potential to harm the cervical spine.

As for your situation, I can only relate my personal experience. I am a retired surgeon, not a neurosurgeon or an orthopedic surgeon, but I have had lots of contact with both and have received advice from several neurosurgeons regarding my personal neck issues.

I had an acute cervical disc rupture at C5-C6 in 1990 and underwent a posterior laminectomy to release and entraped C6 nerve root. I have had to deal with a variable degree of chronic and acute neck pain since that time. Since that surgery I have continued to pursue both kayaking and canoeing, both on flat water and whitewater.

First I would say that cervical spondylosis encompassed a very wide range of pathology and what might be good or bad for one person might not be for another. For myself, kayaking and canoeing tended to be more often beneficial than not, although there was a time or two after multiple days of whitewater kayaking when I had to endure several days of worse than usual neck and referred shoulder pain.

I would be inclined to let your neck tell you whether or not kayaking is causing any problems. If you are not experiencing discomfort during or after, I would say that there is no reason to avoid kayaking. The one thing I would definitely avoid is any axial loading of your neck. Don’t balance the kayak on your head portaging or transporting it. Don’t use tump lines on back packs. One scenario that might be unavoidable is a sudden axial load like my friend sustained that broke his neck should you capsize.

I’m not saying it will damage everyone’s spine.clearly it doesn’t.

It’s just that I’m prone to spine degeneration and am curious whether the wear and tear can make it worse

And yes I’d take the experience of paddlers over the experience of surgeons who don’t really understand the kayak forward stroke.

Thanks pblanc, very useful advice.

I have c6/c7 disc herniation into the right canal, compressing the c7 root.

My surgeons are proposing double level ACDF or a posterior C7 decompression (sounds similar to what you had at C6?).

Do you have any thoughts on posterior approach vs ACDF? Did you feel the decompression was useful? Would you do it again, or do a different surgery?

As for the axial loading, I paddle k1 and only load on my shoulder. I paddle pretty light.

Most sports will be good for most musculoskeletal ailments because the top causes of chronic pain are excess weight, lack of exercise and poor posture. In most situations that’s a good rule of thumb but this becomes less and less true as the body part becomes more damaged, has more issues, has problems that aren’t necessarily musculoskeletal, is done with poor technique or the intensity/impact rises and with it the injury potential.

It’s a real can of worms because in the end very few here are legally qualified to comment on your health which sounds rather complicated, and assuming someone is in the medical field and highly qualified about these things, particularly hailing from the musculoskeletal areas like PT/OT or orthopedics, no one knows your true history. Nothing against you, but who knows about your full medical record? There may be issues that even you yourself might not be aware of that can qualify something as either being good or bad for you just on the weight of that one thing.

Do yourself a favor and at the very minimum find yourself a qualified primary care doctor, physical therapist and maybe even paddling instructor that are well versed in these issues to evaluate your situation and critique your paddling technique.

In my case, there was no option to surgery. I was absolutely incapacitated with radicular pain and had lost significant motor and sensory function in my left arm by the time I had the laminectomy. I had tried everything to relieve the radicular pain during the time between onset and surgery including physical therapy, a TENS unit, steroids, a whole slew of different non-steroidal anti-inflammatory agents, as well as a variety of narcotic analgesics. The only thing that moderated the pain even a little was home cervical traction. I do not exaggerate when I say that if surgery was not an option, I would have killed myself. I could not work, could not sleep, and was watching my left arm become progressively more useless.

As for my condition, I preferred a posterior approach with a laminectomy as I wanted to preserve as much neck mobility as possible. I had only one nerve root involved without any spinal cord involvement. An anterior decompression is generally required if there is spinal cord impingement. An anterior decompression of a nerve root requires removing much of one cervical vertebra to get at the spinal canal, which then requires fusion over at least three levels. The loss of cervical mobility after that is actually not as bad as one might think, and I do have a friend who is a very good whitewater kayaker who had to have more extensive decompression and fusion for spinal stenosis, and he continues to kayak pretty well.

The posterior approach requires more division of muscle and scraping muscle off the bones of the posterior spine to unroof the lamina, so it is said to typically result in more post-operative pain. The cervical spine can actually be approached anteriorly with very little division of muscle. But in my case the postoperative pain was so trivial compared to the radicular pain I had pre-op that I barely took any pain medication.

As for your situation CA139 is correct in that I cannot possibly advise you whether you should have surgery and if so, what approach is preferable, assuming there is more than one option.