20 Physical Challenges That Cause Paddlers to Stop (or Never Start) Kayaking
Nearly 19 million Americans, and roughly double that number of people worldwide, go kayaking each year. Kayaking gives people of all backgrounds the opportunity to embrace the serenity and adventure of nature's beauty, contributing to both their physical and mental well-being. It can provide a significant workout, burning up to 500 calories per hour, and improve cardiovascular health, increase strength and reduce stress.
Though generally considered a low-impact activity, a myriad of factors related to injuries, disabilities and simply the passage of time (i.e., aging) can prevent some people from ever trying kayaking or lead seasoned kayakers to put down their paddles.
In this blog post, we explore 20 of the most common physical challenges that keep people from paddling, underpinning them with statistics, research insights and the candid voices of kayakers who have grappled with these situations. We also touch on the many adaptations available for getting people in these circumstances back on the water and kayaking independently, whether it's their first time ever or a return to an old past time.
Injuries, Disabilities & Aging: Three Factors That Drive the Decision Not to Kayak
Numerous factors, stemming from injuries, physical or cognitive disabilities, certain health conditions or the natural process of aging, can create obstacles for both newcomers and experienced kayakers. We've looked into the top challenges and grouped them into three categories. Please note that there is some overlap between categories (e.g., knee pain can stem from an injury and/or be associated with aging; someone can have a disability that resulted from an injury or accident), but we've only placed them in one category, so be sure to scan all three categories.
A. Common Injuries That Deter People from Kayaking
Acute or Chronic Shoulder Injuries
Shoulder injuries can encompass a range of issues, from rotator cuff tears to labral tears to inflammation. These injuries account for approximately 4.5 million medical office visits each year in the US. They affect the shoulder's range of motion and strength, making stroking a kayak paddle through the water painful and challenging. In some cases, even lifting the paddle is unbearable, rendering kayaking an impractical or impossible pursuit for those affected.
Frozen shoulder, or adhesive capsulitis, certainly doesn't sound all that serious, yet it limits the range of motion in the shoulder joint. Achieving a full paddle stroke in kayaking requires a broad range of arm movements, which can be impossible for those with a frozen shoulder.
Proper paddling technique requires a degree of leg movement, which individuals with knee injuries may find difficult to achieve without discomfort or risk of further injury. According to the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons, over 10 million people in the US visit a doctor each year due to knee pain. Knee injuries, such as ligament tears or cartilage damage, can restrict the ability to bend and flex the legs while paddling. The biggest difficulty with knee problems, however, tends to happen during entry into and exit from the kayak.
“I’m 70 and have had two knee replacements. I have a Tsunami 165. (To get out), I stop in water just below my knee and swing one leg over the side and stand up on it. I can then bring the other leg out on the same side. If you are in shallower water, it is harder as the flexion on the knee is too much. To get in, I put one leg in and sit on the back of the cockpit and then bring my other leg in.” -- Dianne Chellew
Chronic Wrist or Forearm Pain
Chronic wrist or forearm pain often arises from overuse injuries such as tendinitis or carpal tunnel syndrome, the latter of which affects up to 10 million Americans. These conditions can be exacerbated by the repetitive motion of paddling a kayak. Paddlers with these ailments may experience discomfort, numbness or even sharp pain, making kayaking a painful endeavor.
Recovery from Recent Surgeries
Individuals recovering from recent surgeries or medical procedures may need to take a break from kayaking during their healing process to allow tissues to repair, muscles to strengthen or for flexibility to return. These pauses sometimes become permanent as paddlers worry about damaging the surgical site or reinjuring themselves.
Recurring Back Pain
The American Chiropractic Association cites back pain is one of the most common reasons for missed work days, affecting approximately 80% of people at some point in their lives. Sitting in a kayak for extended periods can exacerbate existing back pain issues, placing additional strain on the lower back and sometimes leading to more severe pain.
Pain from Tennis Elbow
Tennis elbow pain, which isn't necessarily caused by playing tennis, can impact an individual's ability to grip and propel the paddle shaft effectively. The pain and discomfort is caused by the inflammation of the tendons that attach to the lateral epicondyle bone on the outer part of the elbow, making kayaking less enjoyable and sometimes impossible.
"The mechanics of using a straight, unsupported paddle were just too rough on my elbow. I couldn’t fully straighten my right arm. It could get to about 165 degrees before the pain would take over. I noticed this most during the turn phase of my sweep stroke as I engaged the right blade in the water and pulled it back to turn my kayak. Even though I wasn’t straightening my arm all the way, the motion caused the elbow to ache." -- Meg McCall
According to the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons, tennis elbow affects about 1-3% of the general population, with most cases occurring in people between the ages of 30-50 years old. However, anyone who engages in activities that require repetitive arm and wrist movements is at risk of developing tennis elbow.
B. Disabilities and Health Conditions That Dissuade People from Kayaking
Individuals who have experienced paralysis due to a stroke, spinal cord injury, nerve disorder or other cause may find themselves unable to kayak. The loss of motor function and muscle control make it difficult to manage the physical demands of paddling, such as getting into the kayak, gripping the paddle or turning the torso. Depending on the type and extent of the paralysis, individuals may only have the use of one arm, upper extremities only, or virtually no mobility in their arms, hands, trunk or legs.
In this video, Julie returned to kayaking after a stroke. She's able to paddle using one arm.
Severe Asthma or Breathing Difficulties
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates approximately 25 million people in the US have asthma, a condition that can vary in severity. Kayaking in the open water can be physically demanding and may exacerbate severe asthma or other breathing difficulties. The potential for shortness of breath and discomfort while kayaking can make individuals with these conditions avoid kayaking.
There are a wide range of neurological conditions, each with its unique set of symptoms and challenges, that also prevent people from kayaking. One thing they often have in common is loss of coordination and motor control, making it difficult to perform the precise movements required for kayaking. They include:
Multiple Sclerosis (MS): MS is an autoimmune disease that affects the central nervous system, causing a range of symptoms, including fatigue, difficulty walking and muscle weakness.
Parkinson's Disease: Parkinson’s disease is a brain disorder that causes unintended or uncontrollable movements, such as shaking, stiffness and difficulty with balance and coordination.
Epilepsy: Epilepsy is a neurological disorder characterized by recurrent seizures, which can vary in severity and type.
Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS): ALS, often referred to as Lou Gehrig's disease, is a progressive neurodegenerative disorder that affects motor neurons, leading to muscle weakness and loss of voluntary muscle control.
Cerebral Palsy (CP): CP is a group of neurological disorders that appear in early childhood, affecting motor function and coordination.
Autism Spectrum Disorder: Autism is a neurodevelopmental disorder that impacts social interaction, communication and behavior, often diagnosed in childhood.
Guillain-Barré Syndrome: Guillain-Barré syndrome is an autoimmune disorder that affects the peripheral nervous system, leading to muscle weakness and sometimes paralysis.
These are just a few examples, and there are many more neurological conditions that impact individuals in various ways. In the video that follows, Matt Kelly, a gentleman from New York state, has Lateral Primary Sclerosis, a motor neuron disease that causes extreme muscle stiffness and leaves him with very limited strength and mobility, particularly in his lower extremities. With the help of outriggers, special seating and the Versa Paddle System, he is able to kayak independently.
Chronic Pain Conditions
Fibromyalgia which affects about 4 million US adults, or 2% of the adult population, is among the chronic conditions that can be exacerbated by the prolonged sitting position in a kayak. The pressure on muscles and joints can intensify pain, making kayaking an uncomfortable -- or an unbearable -- experience.
Other Health Conditions & Diseases
Of course there are dozens, if not hundreds, of other health conditions and diseases that impact people's ability to kayak. One that we hear about frequently among our customers is Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome (EDS), a genetic disorder that affects the connective tissues, causing various issues such as joint hypermobility, skin hyperextensibility and impaired wound healing.
When Rachael Cooper of Tennessee was first diagnosed with EDS, managing her condition became a part of her daily life, but Rachael was determined to reclaim her active lifestyle, which included kayaking. You can read about her journey in this blog post.
“My symptoms and flares were not consistently under control, and it seemed as though none of my hobbies were appropriate.” -- Rachael Cooper
C. Aging-Related Challenges That Can Put a Pause on Kayaking Adventures
Osteoporosis weakens the bones, making them more susceptible to fractures, even from minor accidents. The risk of injury while kayaking, such as from an unexpected capsize, becomes a significant concern for individuals with this condition.
Arthritis is a degenerative condition that affects an estimated 54 million adults in the US, according to the Arthritis Foundation. It hinders mobility which impacts their the ability to engage daily tasks and activities such as kayaking. Hip arthritis, for instance, can make things like getting in and out of a kayak, nearly impossible. Arthritis of the hands and wrists impede the person's ability to grip a paddle or pull it through the water.
Hip Impingement or Bursitis
Hip impingement or bursitis can cause discomfort and pain when one is seated for extended periods. Because kayaking often requires long hours of sitting, it can exacerbate these hip conditions, making the activity less enjoyable and more painful.
Individuals with neurodivergent conditions such as dyspraxia or autism spectrum disorder may struggle with the coordinated movements required for kayaking. Proper technique in paddling, steering and maintaining balance can be challenging, making it a frustrating experience for those with these conditions.
Conditions like vertigo or other balance-related problems can affect stability in a kayak. Maintaining balance is crucial to kayaking safely, and these conditions can increase the risk of tipping over or falling out of the kayak.
Vision impairment affects a kayaker's ability to navigate safely. Hazards on the water, such as other watercraft, obstacles, or changes in water conditions, can become difficult to detect and avoid. The risk of accidents and capsizing becomes more significant for those with vision impairments.
Hearing impairments can hamper communication with fellow kayakers. In group outings or emergency situations, understanding verbal cues or warnings from others on the water becomes a challenge for those with hearing impairments.
Adapt and Overcome: A Return to the Water
While it would seem there are dozens of reasons someone might stop -- or never try to start -- kayaking, there is much reason for optimism. Advancements in kayaking gear and the availability of adaptive equipment have opened up new possibilities for individuals facing physical challenges. These innovations aim to make kayaking more inclusive and accessible, allowing people to overcome the hurdles that may have prevented them from participating. For example:
Developments in paddle design and materials have led to lightweight, ergonomic paddles that minimize stress on the wrists and forearms, addressing the concerns of individuals with chronic pain in those areas.
Stabilizing outriggers can provide paddlers with poor balance or coordination more stability and peace mind.
The integration of technology in kayaking equipment, such as GPS navigation systems and safety features, assists kayakers with vision or hearing impairments.
Specialty seating can provide trunk support for those with paralysis or diminished core strength.
“My favorite thing to do is kayaking! The freedom it gives me to explore places I can’t in my wheelchair is great. I always feel better when I’m out on the water.” -- Jamie Perron, C3-C6 quadriplegic
These advancements, combined with adaptive programs and supportive communities, are helping people rediscover the joys of kayaking and rekindle their connection with the water and nature, regardless of their physical challenges.