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The Surf Culture & Its Injuries

By June 23, 2017April 17th, 2024Exercise

By Blake Walmsley

You may think of it as the ultimate leisure sport.   Do it by yourself, or with your mates; in the rain or sunshine; dusk or dawn.  On a packed Manly beach or at the your own secret spot up the coast. But like any other sport surfing has its injuries, and no I’m not talking about sharks!

Go too far and try to push the boundaries, especially after a long surf, or after a day’s work, and you could see yourself packing it in early and regretting that last wave.

It is estimated only 5-10% of a surfing session is spent actually surfing.

50% is spent paddling and 40% is spent sitting on the board waiting your turn (which in high summer can be never). However, both the surfing and paddling aspects have been attributed to causing chronic injuries in surfers.
A group of researchers out of Bond University performed an epidemiology study on chronic injury in surfers. The results may or may not surprise you.

The stats are important: The lower back had the highest frequency of injury compared to any other body part, with 23.2%. Shoulders were a close second at 22.4% and knees coming at 12.1%.

Current surfing styles consist of dynamic maneuvers like cutbacks, aerials and shove-its, just to name a few.

These movements often combine trunk flexing with rotation. Go too far and try to push the boundaries, especially after a long surf, or after a day’s work, and you could see yourself packing it in early and regretting that last wave.

Paddling is a big part of surfing. The Bond study found 38.% of chronic lower back injuries were due to both prolonged paddling and lying on the surfboard. The biomechanics of paddling a surfboard doesn’t augur well for the lumbar spine. Hyperextension is common and it’s natural to overcook it in order to ensure speed and efficiency.

Lumbar extension allows your chest to keep off the front of the board so the nose stays out of the water, it allows you to have increased arm clearance when paddling. But if you have a stiff back to begin with, especially in the thoracic mid-back region, the lumbar spine is doing ALL the extension  placing the facet joints in a closed packed position, allowing no freedom of movement.. What troubles the back even further is the thoracic spine having to stay rigid to allow a stable base for the shoulders to work off. The more the thoracic spine twists unnecessarily the more power is lost with each stroke. The result is stiffness and pain that more surfing won’t fix.  You need to spend some time maintaining your range of motion and strengthening other parts of your body that isn’t used as much in surfing, like your core and legs.

Secondly shoulders are commonly seen here in the clinic as a result from surfing. It wasn’t surpising that Furness et al., 2013, attributed 45.9 % of shoulder injuries to prolonged paddling. Paddling is done within 120 degrees shoulder flexion down to 50 degrees shoulder flexion. It is no coincidence that this is what is known as the ‘painful arc’ and due to thoracic and lumbar positioning, the shoulders have to use abductors like upper traps and supraspinatus repetitively to complete the paddling motion, this can lead to the overuse injury of Shoulder Impingement. The mechanisms behind overuse shoulder injury is usually down to well-worn motor patterns that are difficult to change. That’s why it’s best to get checked out early as soon as you feel something going on. Make sure that shoulder is moving how it is, and isn’t tightening up in one direction or the other, and you’ll be back out there getting the wave that the other bloke couldn’t because he had a sore shoulder.

References: Furness et al., 2013. Retrospective Analysis of Chronic Injuries in Recreational and Competitive Surfers: Injury Location, Type and Mechanism. International Journal of Aquatic Research and Education. Volume 8, Pg 277-287