paddling after rotator cuff injury

Anyone have experience with this? I am an uber-newbie paddler, my experience being limited to spending a few hours most weekends last summer paddling a (gasp) SOT in a smallish bay in South Jersey. I was hooked from the moment my backside first hit the kayak, and the thought of buying my own boat and getting out there as much as possible this summer got me through a pretty crummy school year.

Then in early March I was diagnosed with a sprained/strained rotator cuff; work-related, not due to kayaking. After two months of PT, it’s not a whole lot better, and I’m almost resigned to having to limit my on-the-water time to a (bigger gasp) pedal kayak this summer. (Hey, at least it won’t be a jetski!)

I realize I need to make treatment decisions based on what the ortho doc says (I see him again next week), but I was wondering whether anyone on this forum has successfully recovered from a rotator cuff injury to paddle a “real” kayak. I’d appreciate any advice from someone who’s been there.



It took my wife
a year before she was able to paddle again after a rotator cuff injury. The seem to heal slowly.

It Made Me A Better Paddler
Mine was injured but not torn. A shot of cortizone seemed to help a lot.

The injury REALLY encouraged me to put the torso into the stroke. If I took some ibuprofen and used the torso I was able to paddle with very little pain.

i had torn mine a few years ago;i did the pt’s after they cut on me;i had a bad tear from a fall at work;i have no problem way paddling i was paddling about 3 months after surgery;

Lots of experience
I’ve torn both of my shoulders up pretty good. After multiple x-rays, different doctors, some basic PT, etc. the general consensus is that I’m not a real good candidate for surgery with a scope. I don’t really have time for open surgery (would interfere with work and the fact that I have three kids with a fourth on the way).

So, most of the doctors I met with (two of whom are paddlers) agree that paddling is, in fact, good PT for many (but not all) shoulder injuries. They were quite clear that I was to remain right side up and not be fooling around with rolls, balance braces, etc. (I was in a greenland type boat). Well, I was back on the water really quick, some three weeks after each dislocation. Still though, I kept dislocating one or the other shoulder for little to no reason.

One day it all dawned on me. I’ve always been a canoe guy. I tore up one shoulder to begin with in a C-1 years ago on a creek. I’d given up on most whitewater stuff but had been paddling standard class OC-1 boats pretty hard almost daily for six or seven years. At some point about two years ago I made the decision to switch to K-1 so I could handle bigger water, colder weather, more wind, etc. Well, the frequency of dislocation and other shoulder problems went up drastically when I was in the K-1. I wasn’t hurting them in the boat (except once, trying to learn some funky greenland roll & doing it wrong). I eventually surmised that the canoe stroke was doing much more to keep good muscle mass in place around my shoulder joints. Sold my kayak, been back in a canoe since January of this year. So far everything is good.

So, in summary, it might be possible to get in a boat much sooner than you think. It might actually help your shoulder problems. A canoe might be better than a kayak or it might not. In any event proper torso driven strokes are critical (they are anyway if you really want to paddle). I’d suggest you find an ortho doc who has a good bit of experience with paddlers and paddling if at all possible and get his / her opinion.

Thanks, everyone, for the advice. I feel much better already. :slight_smile:

I’m going to the shore Mother’s Day weekend, and I’ll definitely give paddling a try. I had sort of planned to do that anyway, but I figured I’d be limited to a pedal kayak. Now I’m more optimistic that I may actually be able to use the paddle.

Since I got hurt at work, I’m kind of stuck with the doc assigned by the workers’ comp carrier. He’s young and definitely into sports medicine, though, so I think I may be able to get good advice from him if I’m coherent enough to ask good questions. At the first appointment I was in agony and then mortified when I fainted from the cortisone shot. At the second appt., I was terrified of another shot-and-fainting episode. I’m determined to approach appt. #3 in a non-wimp-like state!

After my injury
and after PT, I lifted free weights (dumbbells in front of the TV and some floor exercises)which made a huge difference. Building up the shoulder and arm muscles with about nine different exercises made my shoulder nearly normal. It did take about a year to get to that point though. I also found I needed to watch how I paddled to avoid pain. Keeping my elbows lower helped. (I had a tendency to splay them out chicken wing style for some reason.) I could paddle sooner than I could lift and load the boat so an assistant might also be helpful. I think a smaller blade with a faster cadence would work better than forcing a barn door through the water. My doctor advised me that it will never be completely normal and I’ll have to pay attention to how I use it.

Newbie rotator cuff problems
I feel your pain. I too am a newbie paddler. I got my first boat last summer, and went out (flat, quiet water mostly) as often as I could. My shoulders didn’t appreciate it, and by February I could no longer paddle (living in BC we paddle year-round). I wanted to avoid cortisone shots if possible, so I stared with physio. After a month of basically immobilizing and icing, the shoulders were no better, and almost in the “frozen” state. I decided to look into alternatives, and found a Dr of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM). I was thinking acupuncture, but instead he did some special massage on the joint. I went 3 times and he worked on it for an hour each time, and it is MUCH better. His approach also included heat, not ice, which feels much better. I’ve started paddling again, just gently for short periods, and also doing some physio exercises for strengthening the shoulder muscles. As soon as I can paddle a little longer, I intend to get some lessons (shoulda done it at the beginning) and make sure I am using my torso, not just my arms. So there certainly is hope for you, too. It’s just really frustrating having to wait, isn’t it? Good luck with your treatments, keep up the exercises once the pain subsides, and you’ll be back on the water in no time!

don’t reinjure
It was 4 months after rotator cuff surgery before my surgeon gave me the OK to paddle again, and after 9 months I am almost fully recovered. (Full strength but some limits on range still) If I were you, I would make the decision when to start paddling with lots of input from your physical therapist and surgeon - you certainly do not want to start this whole process over with a re-tear.

Ice Ice Baby
I had a strained rotator/upper bycep a couple of years ago and my doc told me that the best thing was to ice it frequently. I did and it seemed like a miracle cure.

He did have me on a prescription anti-inflamatory but since that time I have had other injuries from playing soccer and ice seems to make it a lot better a lot quicker.


What are the symptoms of
rotator cuff injuries? I have had annoying pain near the top of my left shoulder since December and I don’t like to go to doctors unless I’m near to death or need my insurance exam every 10 years. It has not affected my ability to paddle but it is annoying; especial when I wake up.

One symptom
Mine are torn up pretty good I guess - they just come out of joint altogether. I can usually put my left one back in by myself, but my right one warrants a trip to the ER for sure.

I’m usually okay if I don’t over-extend though, there’s no pain or anything on a day to day basis. Over extending usually involves not thinking and / or doing something stupid. One time I was framing a roof (alone) and went to get down. I grabbed the rafter in front of me and jumped so as to swing off and then to the floor. Big big mistake! Another time I tried to lift a relatively heavy brief case from the front passenger seat of my truck and stick it in the right rear passenger seat with my right arm. I was in a hurry and didn’t turn my body around like I should. I almost passed out from the pain that time. The only saving grace was that our really cute neighbor drove me to the ER.

All I can say is OUCH!

elbows in
Get a low angle paddle and paddle a low stroke with your elbows near your body. See VanDoren’s Greenland Paddling video. You do not need to use a greenland paddle for this.

It worked for my shoulder.

Recent surgery
My wife and I live in central Jersey. Last April 19, she had arthroscopic surgery to repair a torn rotator cuff. We are very happy with our surgeon; when he isn’t operating, he teaches other docs. He says that, if all goes well, after five weeks my wife can remove the sling that she wears (at all times except for shower and prescribed exercises) and begin PT. He estimates that recovery will be two to three months, and he has said that he will design exercises especially for paddling. If you would like to communicate further about this, email me.

Good luck.

rotator cuff
After putting off doing anything about my shoulder for a few decades, last fall I went to my orthopedist and after an MRI, he told me I had no options. Finally had surgery may12th. I can start moving my arm myself after june 17th. Until then I get to let the therapist move, lift, twist, and generally bring tears to my eyes. they feel that I should be able to get out again by the beginning of 2007.

Take care of the shoulder and listen when you’re told to take it easy, because if you suffer a major blow out, the recovery is long and very painful. The positive side is that after 40 years, I should now be able to reach that one spot that always itches on my back.

Also, typing is very difficult (even under normal conditions for me) with one hand. Especially having to use the ‘wrong’ hand.


paddling after shoulder injury
I fell on ice two years ago and injured an already deteriorating shoulder. I tried every thing to avoid surgery for 8 months, including ice, rest, a heavy duty anti inflammatory trial and PT.

Finally decided to explore surgery approach. I spent two weeks researching MD’s in my area to find someone who worked on shoulders only. To cut a long story short, in surgery it was discovered that the biceps tendon was 2/3 ripped off the bone and the joint capsule was ruptured.

Recovery was long but almost painless and I resumed working on layback roll while still in PT. Shoulder is better than before I fell.

Many have avoided surgery and are still paddling. That didn’t work for me, but after surgery I have been paddling and frequently doing the one lame roll I know. Am going to give a video clip of my rolling to the MD and PT who did such a fine job on me. If you need to go the surgery route, find a shoulder expert, don’t go to a “different joint every hour” generalist.

Good luck

I’m paddling with a torn right rotator cuff right now. I am also engaged in normal PT but the kayaking doesn’t both my shoulder that much once I’m warmed up. My tear is in an odd position and basically limits my ability to throw a ball and some other similiar motions. I feel that my shoulder is strong now that I’m paddling a lot but the pain lasts longer into the day. Doc said that nothing is getting worse and he likes the idea of continuing to paddle, especially since I have to use my shoulder a great deal at work.

I had surgery on my right shoulder
for a dislocation problem and it is still getting better every year after 5 years. I found that by using a greenland paddle with my hands closer together my arms didn’t have to move as much and it made paddling much easier with less pain. I was pleased to find something that would let me paddle more. The first couple years I had to ice my shoulder after each outing but I haven’t had to the past couple years. I still can’t paddle as long as some other people but It’s getting better every year.

I’m far from an expert paddler
Actually I far from an intermediate paddler too but, I think incorrect paddling exacerbates shoulder problems. With the arm in the “chicken wing” position, more strain and pressure is placed on the rotator cuff. With arms at the side using a fore and aft motion, there is much less strain. My doctor gave as an example the correct way to open a refridgerator in that manner.

When I injured mine, the pain was on the upper arm to the side of the bicep (not in the shoulder area itself) and I could not lift my arm more than about ten degrees from straight down at my side.

RC symptoms

Both of the symptoms you describe could be related to rotator cuff or impingement syndrome. Night pains are quite common with these problems.

Before they get worse, I’d suggest you see an orthopaedic shoulder specialist. You don’t want to injure it further or get into a frozen shoulder situation that is no fun.