PARAMUS, N.J. -- While water polo may seem like a summer sport, the men’s NCAA championships actually take place in December. Given the physical nature of the sport and limited protective equipment, it’s important to be aware of the many different acute injuries that put water polo players at risk.
Acute injuries are often the result of contact with an opposing player, with the head and upper extremities being the most commonly injured areas.
The hands and fingers are vulnerable to acute injury, either when opposing players strike the area as they try to steal the ball, or when players attempt to block shots. This can lead to dislocations or fractures of the hands or fingers. Eye injuries are also common, ranging in severity from irritation to lacerations/abrasions and fractures. Lastly, water polo players are at risk of ruptured eardrums if the ears are struck. These typically heal on their own over time, but given the possible damage to the inner ear from water, injured athletes will often have to remain out of the pool until healing occurs.
With repetitive overhead throwing in water, a lot of stress is placed on the upper extremities to generate velocity in the throws. Some potential injuries include bursitis or tendinopathy of the rotator cuff muscles, tendonitis of the biceps, shoulder impingement, and elbow ligament, cartilage and impingement injuries.
The lack of a solid base in the water also places a load on the lower extremities, as water polo players have to constantly tread water to stay afloat. This “egg beater” kick places strain on the muscles of the thigh and the inside half of the knee, and overuse injuries to these areas are common. These include thigh muscle strains and tendon injuries, patellofemoral pain syndrome and knee ligament and meniscus injuries. Fortunately, as with overuse injuries of the upper extremities, these can often be treated conservatively with rest, ice, anti-inflammatories and physical therapy.
As with injuries in any sport, the best treatment is to prevent them from occurring in the first place. Overuse injuries can be prevented by allowing the body adequate time to heal, whether by taking days off during the week, or cross training to avoid using the same areas repetitively.
Dr. David A. Wang is a sports medicine physician at Hospital for Special Surgery specializing in the treatment of acute and overuse injuries. He practices at both the HSS Outpatient Center in Paramus and the hospital’s main campus in New York.