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Jaclyn McDaniel
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Depending on where one lives in the United States, it is possible to fish year around. This may explain why so many men and women – approximately 33.1 million – have taken up angling. This popularity could also be due to the wide variety of types of fishing. There is freshwater fishing (27.5 million anglers in the U.S.) and saltwater fishing (8.9 million) using live bait or thousands of high-tech, artificial lures. Anglers can spin, cast or fly fish and, in a pinch, it is even possible to fish “old school” with a cane pole, a hook, a bobber and some earthworms for bait!

For all the modern advances that have made in the sport of fishing, one factor remains constant: overuse of the shoulders and back in casting and retrieving a line can cause pain and take most of the fun out of this great sport. This pain is the result of an angler using the same repetitive motion, in many cases, for 1,500 times during a day on the water. In the case of a tournament fisherman, it is estimated that this number of casts can double or even triple each day.

Fortunately, for those who love to “wet a line,” there are ways to avoid or at least ameliorate the pain caused by this repetitive stress of fishing. Dr. Mark Lessner an orthopedic surgeon in the Dallas/Fort Worth area and a member of the Texas Health Spine and Orthopedic Center referral line has treated his share of fishermen and fisherwomen, and he offered some different strategies to prevent and treat these injuries.

Why “Putting a Shoulder to it” Might Not be Good Advice

While there are many injuries associated with fishing, including angler’s elbow, pulled forearm tendons, rotator cuff injuries, carpal tunnel syndrome, frequent muscle cramping, knee sprains and tears and back injuries, the most common fishing-related injuries occur in the shoulder.

“In many ways, the shoulder is one of the most complicated joints in the body,” Dr. Lessner said. “And the most common shoulder injury is a tear of the rotator cuff. These tears can be caused by a wide range of activities, including sleeping awkwardly. However, in most cases, the cause of a rotator cuff injury is repetitive overhand motions like throwing a ball, lifting above the head, or casting a fishing line.

“Even a casual angler makes more than 1,000 casts per day and, if he or she uses crankbait or spinnerbait, this could increase to 2,000 casts. When the weight of a fishing rig, with the torque a rod generates during the casting motion and a heavy or complex bait such as an Alabama rig, are added to the mix, the result is an enormous stress on the shoulder.

 Avoiding Shoulder Pain

“As in most cases with an orthopedic injury, that ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure,” Dr. Lessner said. “This can involve modifying the angler’s cast – or even learning to cast with the non-dominant arm.

“Learning how to use the rod tip to generate more distance when pitching or flipping is also a good technique, and great videos on this are available online. It is also a good idea to keep the upper arms close against the upper torso when overhand casting. By keeping elbows close to the body, this prevents the angler from using his or her arms and shoulders and forces the rod do the work.”

 The Core Problem of Back Pain from Fishing

Poor technique and the constant stress from repetitive casts can also cause back pain from fishing. However, these strains are caused by different forces from those in the shoulder.

“The primary cause of back pain from fishing is inadequate core strength and flexibility,” Dr. Lessner said. “When the back and abdominal muscles are not strong enough to support the spine, the casting and retrieval process of fishing (often while standing on shore or in a boat for several hours) puts a great deal of stress on the lower back.

“Fishing can cause muscle imbalances in problem areas like the upper back, shoulders, forearm flexors and extensors, which affect body alignment or posture and often results in back pain. Obesity can also exacerbate the stress on the spine from the repetitive motion.”

8 Ways to Protect Your Shoulders and Back While Fishing

Fishing guides and online resources suggest several tips  to avoid the repetitive stress injuries to the shoulders that can come from fishing:

Let the rod do the work. Arms and shoulders can never generate as much torque as a fishing rod.

Learn how to cast, pitch and flip with a non-dominant hand. Utilizing both the dominant and non-dominant arm is good for the shoulders, and being able to use both arms interchangeably allows anglers to cast to any target from any side or angle.

Review line options. A line with less stretch means anglers have to do less work with their arms and the rod.

If aches and pains in shoulders from wear-and-tear already exist, pre-medicate before a tournament or fishing trip. Take a pain reliever with breakfast. Stay on top of pain management with additional doses throughout the day. Be sure and read the directions on all medications and speak with a doctor before using any over-the-counter drug.

A few minutes of icing can go a long way for pain management. Keep some quart or gallon plastic bags on board and use them as ice packs.

Use a focused exercise regime involving light weights and lots of repetitions. This is effective in strengthening shoulders and arms, enabling better endurance through the stresses of casting. A five-pound dumbbell and a length of rubber tubing (for stretching) will achieve significant strength improvements. Stretching should also be a component of any routine.

Build core strength and lose weight. If the muscles are not strong enough to support the spine as you stand for hours fishing, lower back pain can occur. Likewise, being overweight can cause muscle stress during rigorous activity such as fishing.

Wear the right shoes and (if necessary) use a back-support belt. There are shoes designed with special insoles that distribute weight evenly available at most outdoor sports retail stores. A back-support belt might also be a good investment if pain persists.

If you are experiencing shoulder or back pain from fishing, or any other sport, contact us for an appointment today. We want you back on the water!

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