2 August, 2013 2 August, 2013

Dry Docked – Neck Injuries


Wipeouts are part of surfing – they’re the price we pay when pushing ourselves over the limit, or simply from a lapse of concentration or control. We’ve all got a wipeout story to tell – some are just a lot more gnarly than others.

From most wipeouts we pop up grinning, before stroking back out to go catch another, but every now and then you’ll feel a tweak, twist, bang or snap, which leaves you in pain.

For this dry-docked post we’re going to be concentrating on neck injuries, a common niggle for surfers, and how best to deal with them to minimize our time in the dry-docks.

Durban-based biokineticist Schalk van der Merwe shares his expertise below.


HEADBANGED – Avoiding or Treating Neck Injuries

During a flat spell, one of my favourite past-times is to surf the web and watch some of the most epic wipeout videos. Call me masochistic, but watching a surfer getting ‘ragdolled’ by a 15ft beast at Pipe sends tingles down my spine. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t derive some sick pleasure from watching their misfortune, it merely serves to remind me that the ocean, as much as we love it, can be an unforgiving mistress.

Travis Logie taking his licks at the Billabong Pro Teahupo'o in 2011.

Travis Logie taking his licks at the Billabong Pro Teahupo’o in 2011.

Surfing has always been viewed, not only as an activity that benefits the soul, but also the body, but let’s face it, given the right conditions can get pretty gnarly. It has a way of taking its toll on your body. Whether being smacked by a heaving lip, getting dragged over rocks, being held under, or simply getting klapped by the shorebreak while exiting the water; you are bound to feel the after-effects.

Watching in slo-mo how Jeremy Flores bounces his way down a 15ft wall of heaving water, only to be kissed on the head by the hairiest lip known to man, I can’t help but wonder what damage is being done physically. I know for sure, he is going to leave the water with a little more than a headache.

It’s funny though how with surfing, getting into the wrong position or wiping out awkwardly could lead to injury even in the smallest waves.

Let’s investigate a little further…


Neck Pain is often caused by overuse or a gnarly wipeout. While paddling, the cervical spine is kept in extension. The thoracic spine must be propped up during paddling. Newbies to surfing are usually prone to the neck pain associated to this position. Nerve compression is extremely common amongst surfers. It can result from a long day out in the lineup. It is not uncommon to leave a session with a pounding headache, stiffness, pins and needles or pain in the arms.

Between each vertebra there is a disc. This disc acts like a cushion, which allows for minimal impact during movement and hyperextension while paddling


Nerve roots that come out of the area in the neck can be affected by sudden stretching or compression. This causes pain and muscle spasm. 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.

How do we correct this?
1. Position yourself with a less hyper extended neck.
2. Be aware of keeping your neck held up and facing forward for long periods of time
3. Change position of neck from side to side while paddling.
4. Strengthening the muscles of the neck, shoulder and back will assist to reduce the pain caused.
5. Regular massage and stretching will also help prevent the problem from occurring

Correct diagnosis of a neck injury is important. Make sure you visit your doctor, physio or chiropractor, to ensure that as a surfer, you get back to where you belong as soon as possible; Out in the lineup.




Schalk van der Merwe is a qualified Durban based biokineticist, who has extensive experience in working with rehabilitation of orthopedic injuries. Not only has he worked with many of SA’s surfing elite, but also has helped with the conditioning and rehabilitation of high profile sportsman and woman in all sporting codes. When he is not out at backline, you will find him at Kings Park Sports Medicine Centre (Glenwood Branch).



If you’ve got a surfing injury that needs some attention, why not try contacting one of Zag’s friendly neighbourhood biokineticists:

For KZN:
Schalk van der Merwe

For Boland:
Philip Nel
Le Roux and Nel Biokineticists

1 Comment

  1. Steve
    5 October, 2014 at 11:36 pm · Reply

    Hadn’t surfed for about ten years, and I bought a board and paddled out. Needless to say, by the end of the day my ribs hurt, and the next day my neck hurt. Couldn’t get a decent position where it didn’t hurt, other than lying down. I hope this goes away, but just sitting in a chair, head up, the back of my neck hurts!

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