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What Are Common Kayaking Injuries?

As kayaking and other water sports continue to rise in popularity, it is important to be safe on the water. Current Sports Medicine Reports, the official journal of the American College of Sports Medicine, estimates that more than 18 million people in the United States participate in some sort of paddle sport: canoeing, kayaking, rafting, or stand-up paddleboarding. So, even though these paddling sports are generally safe, there is always a risk when you head out on the water.

Here we look at some of the common types of injuries involved in kayaking and how to avoid them.

Types of Kayaking Injuries

Direct and Indirect trauma: 

Direct trauma injury involves striking an object, like a hard hit on a boulder in the river or another paddler’s equipment. 

Indirect trauma is stress on the body from the interaction with the force of the water, or your position in the ‘yak, or your equipment.

Direct and indirect trauma are acute kayaking injuries that account for 58% of whitewater paddlers and a large portion of new paddlers. Inexperienced paddlers can get hit by paddles, capsize, and have blunt force injuries from being ejected from the kayak and colliding with rocks, logs, and other debris in the water. Hits to the head from another paddler or a sharp strike on a rock can lead to concussions and broken bones which can sideline a paddler pretty quickly. In addition, lacerations, contusions, blisters, and dislocations are injuries that could require medical intervention. A traumatic injury can derail your pleasant excursions quite quickly.

Common Traumatic Kayaking Injuries:

  • concussions
  • lacerations
  • contusions
  • dislocations
  • broken bones
  • sprains / strains
  • Overuse: 

    These are kayaking injuries that result from continuous, repetitive motion.

    If traumatic injuries are more likely with novices, then overuse kayaking injuries belong to the expert crowd. It just makes sense, if you are a more seasoned paddler, you have spent more hours on the water, ergo, more repetitive use or chronic injuries. Tendonitis of the wrist and shoulder are common overuse injuries. Some indirect trauma injuries are also overuse issues. Low back pain, especially after a long day in an improper position, is one example. Blisters and other rubbing trauma can be a common result of long use of a paddle.

    Common Overuse Kayaking Injuries:

  • tendonitis (especially wrist & shoulder)
  • wrist, hand, finger pain
  • skin irritation (like blisters)
  • numb legs (from pressure points)
  • low back pain (poor posture or muscle imbalance)
  • Submersion / Environmental: 

    These stresses can occur due to interaction with the environment.

    Another set of common injuries that can plague kayakers are injuries resulting from exposure to the environment. Aquatic sports carry a bit of extra risk by nature of being on the water. And heading out into nature always requires a pinch of prevention. 

    Injuries like heatstroke or heat exhaustion and sunburn are all likely if you don’t prepare. Falling into the water can also present dangers, from the extremes of hypothermia or drowning to the more benign, but still unpleasant, swimmer’s ear. Every time you get on the water assume that you could take a swim (and then be pleasantly surprised when you don’t. It is much better that way than the alternative. . .)

    Common Environmental Kayaking Injuries:

  • hypothermia
  • heat exhaustion / heat stroke
  • sunburn
  • swimmer’s ear
  • drowning
  • Treatment / Prevention of Kayaking Injuries

    Preparation: The first step in preventing kayaking injuries is preparing well.

    Listen to your body / Know your limits: You know yourself best, so be aware of how you are feeling physically and emotionally.

    • Take frequent breaks
    • Don’t paddle angry or upset 
    • Paddle at your skill level and don’t take chances you aren’t ready for
    • Avoid progressing through levels of experience too fast as that can lead to injury as well

    Seek Medical Advice: If you sustain a traumatic injury or chronic injury, seek medical attention.

    • Don’t be a “hero”, ask for help if you need it
    • Don’t wait too long or the issue could get worse. Then a simple fix becomes much more complicated.

    R.I.C.E: Often the best prescription for overuse and soreness is:





    • A common treatment for repetitive strain injuries is rest (minimize use of the affected limb), ice (15-20 minutes a day divided into brief applications), compression (properly applied bandages can help reduce swelling initially), and elevation (keep the limb elevated, i.e. above your heart.) 
    • NSAIDs can be used to reduce inflammation and manage pain
    • Splinting might help to restrict movement 

    While there is always a danger in getting out on the water, don’t let these concerns keep you from enjoying a kayaking adventure! Current Sports Medicine Reports notes that the injury per hour per year rate of recreational paddling is only 0.04 injuries. Take the steps above and enjoy your time soaking in the experience. Happy paddling!

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