Surfers Paddling and Nerve Compression in the neck.

Surfers Paddling and Nerve Compression in the neck.

While you are young this may not seem an issue, however after many years of surfing nerve entrapment or compression can become a real “pain in the neck”.

Nerve compression in the cervical region (neck) can result from paddling over many years or even from a long day of surfing with your neck extended on your board. Some of the symptoms can include pins and needles in your triceps, arms, hands, and a feeling of muscle weakness. Often you may leave the surf with a pounding headache on the left or right side of your head.

Between each of the vertebrae are our discs. In total there are seven vertebrae in our necks or what we term our cervical part of our spine. Each vertebra has a bony prominence called the spinous process which is situated behind the spinal cord protecting our nerve tissue. Our discs act like cushions between each vertebra which assist with impact on the spinal column that occurs with movement or hyperextension when we paddle. Each of these discs is made of a soft nucleus pulposus which is a jelly-like substance in the middle of the spinal disc.

This area can rupture, bulge or herniate through the surrounding outer ring of the annulus fibrosus and affect the nerve tissue and injure our ligaments, which are composed of fibrous tissue that hold the vertebrae together and surround our cervical discs.

The discs and the joints are stacked on top of each other. Our facet joints are then subject to wear and tear over time and become degenerative and we see dramatic changes occur.

This degeneration of the cervical discs is often called cervical spondylosis and can be seen clearly in a MRI scan. This then leads into osteoarthritis.

The nerve roots that come out of the area in the neck can be affected by sudden stretching, hyperextension or compression. The pain and spasm in the muscles of the neck tend to occur as a result of this along with numbness and severe headaches that can last for days. It is then difficult to treat the nerve pain as drugs for this type of pain are normally of little use. Pain can also radiate to the shoulder as well. Treatment includes ice, rest, heat treatment, painkillers, muscle relaxants and physiotherapy. In most cases symptoms will settle within a few weeks, but can be also be around for a long time.

Positioning yourself on your board with a less hyper extended neck will eliminate this problem. While it is a bit difficult to master, the surfer needs to be aware and keep his/her neck to the side and changing the position from left to right when paddling. Be conscious of the neck been held up and facing forward for long periods of time. Strengthening the area will also assist. With severe prolonged pain and severe impairment of function a localised injection by your doctor to the facet joint area may be recommended. Surgery is rarely performed and the exact nature of the procedure depends on the overall condition of your spine condition your age and the severity of the problem However surgeons do not like to tackle this area.


John Hart

“Master’s In Education” (Disability) Newcastle University Australia

“Grad Cert Education” Newcastle University Australia

“Diploma Fitness/Recreation”

“Diploma of Sport and Recreation”

“Cert 4 Personal Training”

“Level 1 Strength and Conditioning Coach”

6 Responses to “Surfers Paddling and Nerve Compression in the neck.”

  1. Noel August 1, 2012 at 7:45 pm Permalink

    Hi John

    I tried looking for a “contact me” form but couldn’t find one so hopefully this gets to you.

    I believe I’m experiencing the symptoms you describe in this article. This summer I’ve been surfing a lot more than I ever have in the past, almost every day and sometimes multiple sessions a day. After a few months of this, I started getting headaches when I go to the gym and do exercises targeting my traps and neck. I’ve been doing the same routine in the gym for a long time and the only thing that changed was that I’ve been surfing way more. After doing research I believe it’s caused, as you describe in this article, by holding my head up while paddling. Now my neck is strained and the pain is triggered when lifting heavy in the gym.

    My question is, should I visit a physical therapist or chiropractor? Should I just give myself some rest? I’m already taking a break from surfing for now to see if that helps. Is there anything else I can do to help?


  2. John Hart August 2, 2012 at 7:13 am Permalink

    Hi Noel,
    Probably need some more detail, however I does sound like it could be from surfing or it could be a Levator Scapula issue.
    If it is Levator you may also experience pain, discomfort, and/or tightness in the levator scapula muscle. Its tendon origin is on the transverse process of the first four cervical vertebrae.
    It passes downward and lateral to insert on the vertebral border of the scapula above the scapula spine. In simple terms it’s contraction elevates the scapula, and tends to draw it medial, and rotates it to lower the lateral angle.
    Motions of the neck also affect the levator scapula muscle because of the mechanics of its attachments. Basically if you are getting headaches on the side of your head up to about the eye line then it could be this. Hyper-extension of the neck IE head raised when you are paddling will also cause pain and aches in the neck. You may even feel pins and needles down the arm to the fingers. It could be (if severe) a slight bulge of the disc which then touches the nerve. However the only real way to tell what is going on is a CT scan or MRI. I would suggest you go see your doctor and ask for a CT scan then a referral to a good sports physio. I hope this helps Noel. And thanks for contacting me and reading my blog. Keep in touch via the site. I will also respond by your email as well. Cheers Mate
    John Hart

  3. james leone August 18, 2012 at 1:33 pm Permalink


    I am experiencing the symptoms you have discribed except no headaches. I have been surfing regularly for 35 years. I have had several flair ups of this condition over the past 8 years that have subsided after medication (steriods, pain killers, muscle relaxers). However the last flair up – (I believe it was a result of a visit to a chioropractor) did not subside after drug treatment. It is now approaching 1 year since this most recent flair up and the symptoms are still present. I am wondering if you believe returning to the chiropractor would help or give another go with drug treatment?

    Thank you,


  4. John August 18, 2012 at 8:04 pm Permalink

    Hi Jim,
    Sounds like you may have some nerve compression damage. Best idea is see you doctor and get a MRI done to see exactly what is happening here that way you can look at the best treatment. I would suggest a well experienced “SPORTS” physio. In the mean time avoid surfing apply lots of heat and try not to hyperextend your neck IE backwards motion. Some over the counter anti-inflammatory and pain killers will help.

  5. Stuart September 13, 2012 at 10:35 am Permalink

    Hi John
    I have found your article incredibly informative. I have surfed for 35 years however the past 5 years has been more off than on. I hurt my neck approx. 3 years ago when I fell and hit a really shallow sand bank. At the time it felt as though I had ripped all the muscles in neck and shoulders with pins and needles running down my arm into my hand. I visited a Chiropractor and a physio and that seemed to help although I have since then had some pain when pushing under a wave, paddling and pushiing to stand up. I still have some pins and needles running down into my fingers and have consistent headaches on the right side of my head, as well pain in my shoulder.
    I have had X-Rays which revealed to vertebrae rubbing together pinching the nerve. The Chiro reffered me to a surgeon who prescribed anti-inflammatories and said I should return in 2 weeks if the pain continues, for an MRI. That was 6 months ago and the pain etc. is still there. I am nervous of surgery, its my neck afterall. Should surgery be required what are the options and when, in your opinion should one hope to be back in the water after surgery?
    I do realise that you, not seeing the X-Rays, would only be able to make a suggestion and not a 100% informed recommendation.

    Kind Regards

  6. Melinda January 7, 2013 at 6:29 am Permalink

    Hey there,

    Came here looking for some help. I have three damaged cervical discs including one that is herniated. I am trying to figure out if kayaking is going to do more damage. The specialist I am seeing gave me no data but just tried scare tactics to get me to stop. I have been through this all before with a herniated L5/S1 disc for which I did have surgery. But the neck is really different.

    I am going to a spine surgeon on Tuesday. The reason is that he turns more people down for surgery than he agrees to operate on. He carefully tracks the outcomes of his interventions and changes his practice accordingly. He also spends most of his time repairing surgeries that should not have been done in the first place or damage from fusion surgeries.

    Good surgeons know who will benefit from surgery and who will not. So, whether or not you want to have surgery they are good people to see (if you can find one who only operates when necessary). Take a look at this website This guy is one of the top spine surgeons in the country.

    Just want to commiserate that having disc problems when you are an active person is really awful. If anyone of you kept kayaking and could let me know how it turned out that would be appreciated!


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