I’ve discovered that swimming helps my severe AS pain
Slow, mindful laps in the pool help to ease my chronic pain
My first symptoms of ankylosing spondylitis (AS) weren’t the commonly discussed sacroiliac pain, which is at the base of the spine. Instead, I was waking up in the wee hours of the night with intense burning in the middle of my spine, ribs, and shoulder blades.
After 2 a.m., as the long, dark hours wore on, I’d be wide awake in bed. I’d toss and turn, adjusting the myriad pillows that I used to support my arms, knees, back, and neck. But I simply couldn’t sleep through the feeling that my thoracic spine had turned into a column of red-hot coals.
I was very overwhelmed at the beginning of my diagnosis with AS, mostly because I didn’t know how to manage many of the symptoms. Part of the difficulty is that my symptoms seemed to change, move, and disappear, then suddenly — bam! — I’d be in pain again. It was hard to figure out which therapies were working and which were making my back pain worse.
Finding the right exercise to combat AS stiffness
As the years went by, I tried plenty of different strategies to reduce all of that horrible stiffness, muscle tightness, and joint pain. I still find exercise challenging, because any weight-bearing exercise for my arms — or even supposedly simple movements like a downward dog in yoga — make me wake up the next day with horribly painful shoulder blades or ribs.
It’s taken me several years to come around to following my rheumatologist’s advice of trying swimming as a helpful exercise for AS. Boy, I wish I’d tried regular swimming sooner. If I’m experiencing crunchy or tight shoulders, or extended morning stiffness in my spine and ribs, I’ve found that slow and mindful laps in the pool can offer immediate improvement.
Most days over this long summer in Western Australia, I’ve spent 20 minutes splashing up and down our backyard pool. I can be feeling as stiff as the Tin Man as I creak my way down the stairs into the cool water, but within a few minutes of gentle movement, the crunches and creaks float away.
Some swim strokes help more than others
I’ve realized that swimming is wonderful for building strength and maintaining flexibility in the spine, and the water buoyancy puts less pressure on my joints.
“Front crawl is a great stroke for many people with axial SpA,” the National Axial Spondyloarthritis Society notes. “The body position remains extended throughout, including the neck, and the spine rotates gently.”
In every quick swimming session, I’ve been alternating between a few different strokes: front crawl, breaststroke, and backstroke. I enjoy the different feelings of motion, which articulate my back muscles and spine in different ways.
The only worry I have is the frog-like leg kick in the breaststroke, which seems as though it could aggravate my hips or sacroiliac joints if I was having issues. However, I don’t want to give up the breaststroke, because the circular motion of my arms and shoulder blades feels so good. Maybe I’ll have to invent my very own swimming motion with a combination of movements!
Swimming to reduce AS pain
I take hope from other swimmers with ankylosing spondylitis who write about their improvements. Masters swimmer Michael McNelis rejoined competitive swimming after an AS diagnosis, with impressive results in the water.
Rachel Pinto started as a beginning swimmer and found that swimming regularly brings relief from her AS pain. As the U.S. Masters Swimming website explains, Pinto’s secret is to stay active. “If I don’t, that’s when the joints can fuse together,” she says.
Pinto’s story of nighttime back pain sounds very similar to mine, and though I don’t intend to become a Masters swimmer like her, I’m excited about potential improvements from a more regular swimming schedule.
As much as I’ve enjoyed the instant accessibility of our home pool, the laps are too short. Now that I realize how much swimming is helping, I’m going to commit to trying some longer laps at the local public pool. I’d love to get some guidance from a swimming coach in the near future as well, to make sure I’m doing the strokes correctly and not causing injuries.
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