Common Tennis Injuries
Neck & Back Pain in Tennis Players
Causes for neck and back pain
Neck, upper and lower back pain are not uncommon in tennis. This can be due to several reasons such as intensity of games, poor playing techniques, poor physical conditioning and falls. It is important to identify regular muscles aches from strenuous tennis games versus actual injuries such as tendon inflammation or tears.
General muscles aches tend to improve after a few days of rest with regular stretching. This is something all athletes experiences regardless of the sport they enjoy. However, if your pain is severe and limits your basic movement, is associated with muscle weakness or even numbness, it is best to get it assessed by a medical professional such as an orthopaedic surgeon or physiotherapist.
As you move and twist your body on a forehand or backhand, lots of torque and power are applied to the muscles of your neck and back. Muscles spasms can occur as well as injuries to your intervertebral discs. Irritation of nerve roots may also lead to numbness and pain.
Some of the signs that indicate severe pain include the following:
- Constant pain at rest and at night despite adequate rest and care, pain that wakes you up at night, or sharp, shooting pain to your arms
- Tingling, numbness and/or weakness in your arms and fingers
- Clumsiness, for example, difficulty holding a pen or chopsticks, unable to button your shirt
- Instability when walking
- Trouble going to the toilet
- Sharp, shooting pain in your legs – this may or may not be associated with tingling and numbness in the calves or toes
If you have these symptoms above, you are advised to seek medical help from a doctor or orthopaedic surgeon.
Assessment and investigations
If you continue to get debilitating pain in your neck or back after adequate rest, it is best for a medical professional to assess your symptoms and perform a thorough medical examination for you. This is to determine your basic movements, strengths and exclude any major or serious injuries.
If there are worrying signs such as muscle weakness, numbness or abnormal gait, your orthopaedic surgeon may investigate your injuries further with X-rays and MRI scans of the injured area. This is to better assess the extent of injury and allow for a more targeted treatment for you. MRI scans are able to identify injuries such as bulging or torn intervertebral discs, nerve root impingement or degenerative conditions.
Prevention is always better than cure. A pre-game routine and stretch is crucial to prevent these injuries. A proper 5- to 10-minute stretch focusing on our necks, shoulders, upper and lower back is important both before and after your game. It’s always good to arrive about 30 to 45 minutes before a game, as this helps to calm us down and improve our tempo going into our game.
Most muscle pain affecting the neck, upper and lower back improve with self-care such as adequate rest from tennis, stretching, simple anti-inflammatory medication and management of swelling. Ice packs help to reduce joint swelling and allow a faster return to sport.
If there are no major injuries detected on the MRI scans, a course of physiotherapy will help to identify tight and injured muscles or tendons and allow effective rehabilitation. However, if there are injuries to the intervertebral disc or nerve impingement, an initial course of medication will help relieve your symptoms.
What to do now while waiting for diagnosis/treatment?
Do seek professional medical help if you are experiencing severe and debilitating pain that affects your daily activities and quality of life. An accurate diagnosis can go a long way in reassuring you and allowing you to receive treatment sooner rather than later.
How to prevent injuries?
Here are several tips you may adopt to protect yourself from injuries:
Know when to stop
Stop playing if your shoulder is hurting while playing tennis. You can always return to the game another day once your shoulder is better.
Ensure you have adequate rest after each strenuous tennis session.
You may use ice and anti-inflammatory medication to reduce the pain and swelling in your shoulder.
Strengthen the muscles around your shoulder and back at the gym. There are many muscles in our body which have to work together and harmoniously. Strong muscles help prevent injuries and compensate for injuries around your joints.
Stretch before and after games
It is important to do your regular stretching before and after any tennis game or practice. Tightness in one muscle may lead to pain in another. The trapezius and latissimus dorsi muscles are major muscles in your back and may cause significant pain if they are injured.
Left: Trapezius muscles in your upper back and neck. Right: Latissimus Dorsi muscles in your lower back.