Rowing Injuries

The first intercollegiate rowing race occurred in 1852 between Harvard and Yale, and that is also considered to be the first organized intercollegiate sporting competition in the United States. Rowing is also one of the oldest Olympic sports. The first Olympic rowing regatta occurred in 1900. In the last few decades, rowing has grown in popularity among high school and collegiate athletes. There are two different forms of rowing: in sweep rowing, each rower holds one oar, with both hands on the same oar. In scull rowing, each rower holds two oars, one in each hand. A rowing boat can hold 1, 2, 4, or 8 rowers. Although such variations in rowing exist, the rowing stroke remains consistent in its form, and the muscle groups involved in producing a stroke are essentially the same.

Phases of the Rowing Stroke

In a rowing boat, also called a shell, rowers are aligned one in front of the other in such a way that they all face the rear of the boat (stern) and their backs face the front of the boat (bow). Rowers are seated on sliding seats with their feet strapped into shoes within the boat. The oars are locked into riggers (fulcrums) at the gunwales along the length of the boat. The rowing stroke begins with the rower in a seated position with the legs flat and the oar handle close to the body. Next, the rower turns the oar handle so that the blade of the oar is parallel to the water, and extends the arms. Then, there is flexion of the knees and back as the rower advances forward up the slide. As the rower slides forward, the blade is placed in the water behind him. At this position, called the catch, the rower’s hips and legs are flexed, the arms are extended, and the back in a flexed position, ready to drive the blade through the water. On the drive, the rower provides power as he pushes against the shoes, causing the legs to extend. Next, he extends the back to finish pulling the oar through the water. This process propels the boat forward. The bulk of power during the rowing stroke comes from the legs.

Common Rowing Injuries


Most injuries sustained by rowing athletes are overuse injuries. An example of this type of injury is extensor tenosynovitis of the wrist, which results from the “feathering” motion, in which the rower turns the handle of the oar in order to lift the blade out of the water at the end of the stroke and turn it parallel to the water. Extensor tenosynovitis is inflammation of the tendon sheath around the extensor tendons of the wrist. The extensor tendons become compressed beneath the bellies of the thumb muscles. This can lead to pain and swelling of the wrist, and it is exacerbated by cold weather. Treatment options include wrist splint, non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medications, and rehabilitation. Corticosteroid injections may also be used to reduce inflammation. (Hosea and Hannafin, 2012)


Rowers may also suffer from chondromalacia patellae, the inflammation and softening of the cartilage on the undersurface of the patella (kneecap). This is caused by repetitive movement of the patella against the femur during flexion and extension of the knee. Quad-strengthening activities, such as squats and the rowing stroke itself, are the underlying culprits in chondromalacia patellae.  The condition can present with pain in the anterior knee. The patient may also complain of pain while ascending or descending stairs and may experience a clicking sensation in the knee during the rowing stroke. Crepitation may be found on physical exam. Treatment for chondromalacia patellae includes non-steroidal anti-inflammatories, stretching of the quadriceps muscles and iliotibial band, and rehabilitation. (Hosea and Hannafin, 2012)


Low back pain is one of the most common complaints among rowers.  During the rowing stroke, the rower flexes the spine forward to place the oar in the water, then extends the back as the legs drive the oar through the water to propel the boat. Weakness of the lumbar muscles can lead to hyperflexion the lumbar spine, placing increased stress on the lumbar and thoracic spine and causing injury. Chronic hyperflexion and the loading of great force during extension can lead to a number of different back injuries, including muscle spasm, spondyloysis (forward movement of one vertebra relative to another), and disc herniation. Initial management of these injuries is conservative, including rehabilitation, anti-inflammatory medication, and pain management. In severe cases, when there is significant nerve damage, pain, or disability, surgery may be considered. (Rumball, Lebrun, Di Ciacca et al, 2005)


 Stress fractures of the ribs are significant injuries in rowing and usually occur at the region of the rib with the smallest diameter. The serratus anterior, which attaches to the shoulder blade and the ribs, serves a protective effect against abdominal compression of the ribs at the finish of the stroke, when the back is in extension. As the serratus anterior fatigues, this protective force is lessened, and excessive force of the abdominal muscles may lead to stress fractures of the ribs. Rowers with this injury may complain of rib pain that worsens with deep breathing.  Treatment of rib stress fractures involves rest for 4-6 weeks. Core strengthening exercises and strengthening of the serratus anterior should be performed to prevent future injury. (Rumball, Lebrun, Di Ciacca et al, 2005)



Hosea TM, Hannafin JA. “Rowing Injuries.” Sports Health. 26 April 2012. Vol 4, Issue 3 (April 2012): 236-245.

Rumball JS, Lebrun CM, Di Ciacca, SR et al. “Rowing Injuries.” Sports Medicine 35 (June 2005): 537-555.


Phases of the rowing stroke: Accessed 21 March 2018

Olympic rowers: Accessed 21 March 2018

By Alee Vladyka and Jesse Reisner