If you love playing tennis, then you love the competition, the camaraderie, and the feeling you get when the techniques you've learned start coming together — but you certainly don't love tennis injuries. So, how do you avoid these tennis injuries, keeping yourself fit and healthy and ready to keep on doing what you love to do?
At JAG Physical Therapy, we’re serious about helping athletes throughout NY, NJ, and PA perform their best and maintain their best musculoskeletal health. Staying fit and injury-free means you can enjoy tennis without pain and discomfort. It'll also help you to get better at the sport you love. While our return-to-sport rehabilitation is great for getting you back out there on the court, injury prevention is always the best policy. Contact us today to learn more about our sports medicine program, find a location near you, or read more to see our tips for staying healthy on the tennis court.
What Are the Most Common Tennis Injuries, and How Can They Be Avoided?
Tennis injuries generally fall into one of two categories: acute or traumatic injuries and chronic or overuse injuries. Acute injuries occur suddenly and can be traced back to a specific moment during your tennis session, while overuse injuries may build slowly over time.
The most common types of acute injury in tennis generally involve ligament or tendon damage. Tennis requires quick movement over short distances, often laterally (i.e., side to side). Stopping, starting, and changing direction puts pressure on joints in the lower limbs, putting players at risk of injury. Going over on your ankle or jarring your knee can damage the ligaments in these joints, resulting in a sprain.
While the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) and the medial collateral ligament (MCL) in the knee are of particular concern for tennis players, ligament injuries and sprains are also common in the upper body. The ligaments attaching the collarbone to the shoulder blade can become stretched or ruptured, leading to painful shoulder separation. Wrist ligaments are also at risk of injury.
The explosive nature of tennis movement places a lot of strain on tendons within the body. When you push off suddenly, changing direction or breaking into a sprint, the Achilles and hamstring tendons at the back of the leg are placed under tension and could rupture. In the upper body, the rotator cuff — a collection of tendons supporting your shoulder joint — can also become damaged.
Muscle strains and cartilage injuries are other common complaints among tennis players. Generally, acute injuries are fairly easy to spot — they tend to be pretty painful, and you probably won't want to keep on playing if you suffer one.
Chronic injuries are easier to ignore than acute injuries, at least at first, but they can be just as serious. Over time, a low-level pain can build into something more severe, and this type of damage certainly requires attention.
Tennis elbow, or lateral epicondylitis, occurs when the tendons on the outside of the elbow become inflamed from overuse. While this is one of the primary tendon injuries associated with tennis — hence the name — it's certainly not the only one. Tendinitis in the wrist, the Achilles, and the shoulder are also common. The fluid sacs that cushion the elbow and shoulder joints can become inflamed as well, leading to bursitis.
Osteoarthritis and iliotibial band (ITB) syndrome in the knee can also cause problems for tennis players. The bones themselves may become damaged, forming stress fractures that worsen over time — this is common in the foot and ankle but can be an issue elsewhere.
Avoiding Injuries While Playing Tennis: Identifying and Mitigating Risk
Avoiding injury is a key part of playing tennis — staying injury-free makes tennis more enjoyable while also supporting the highest levels of performance. Identifying the risk factors associated with injury and then mitigating them is crucial here.
Understanding body physiology and injury history
Ligaments can become stretched if they have been injured before, increasing the potential for joint laxity. Understanding the physiology of your body can help you understand key injury risk factors, and you can use strengthening exercises or taping to mitigate this.
Assessing equipment and playing environment
Using a damaged racket could affect your grip, leading to hand or elbow injuries. Using worn or old footwear can increase the impact on your joints, raising the likelihood of cartilage damage and other issues. Playing on a rough, slick, or damaged surface could result in a sprained ankle or twisted knee. Make sure your playing surface and equipment are optimal to reduce the risk of injury.
Focusing on technique
Tennis involves lots of repetitive movements — hundreds or even thousands of these movements across the course of a game or training session. Small technical errors can quickly build up, putting the player at heightened risk of injury.
Warming up properly
A proper warm-up will prepare the body for the rigors of more intensive play, and yet some tennis players rush through their warm-ups or do not complete this phase thoroughly. Make sure you warm up properly whenever you play.
How Can Players Improve Their Conditioning to Minimize the Risk of Tennis Injuries?
Overall condition and fitness is an important part of avoiding tennis injuries. Improving cardio function helps you to retain a high base level of effort while you play, so you can play at a high rate of intensity for longer without getting tired. When you get tired, you begin to make mistakes, increasing the risk of injury, so strong cardiovascular health is an important factor here.
Building muscular strength is also important. Muscles can provide additional strength around the joints, reducing the strain that is placed on ligaments and tendons. In addition, stronger muscles help you to retain the right technique for longer. Reducing body fat ratios and general weight may also help, as this further reduces the strain placed on joints like knees, ankles, and hips.
Improving Body Conditioning for Tennis
So, how can you improve your overall fitness and condition to help you avoid injury? Here are a few tips that are specific to tennis competition but can also help you in other areas of your life:
Cardio is largely universal, so any exercise that gets your heart and lungs working on a regular basis is going to make a real difference. If you don't have a strong cardio base to begin with, you can start by doing around half an hour of light exercise three or four times a week and building up from there. Any activity that raises your heart rate and makes you mildly out of breath will help.
There are many ways to build up the muscular strength needed for tennis. Squeezing a ball in the palm of your hand can increase wrist and forearm strength, while jumping and skipping can help build leg muscles. Lateral lunges and press-ups are also useful for developing the muscularity specific to tennis performance.
Stretching is useful as part of your warm-up, but you'll also want to incorporate regular stretching into your daily routine, giving you the overall flexibility needed for tennis. Common stretches include:
- Extending your arm out in front of you with your palm open and fingers pointing down, then lightly pulling your fingers toward you with your other arm.
- Standing upright, joining your hands behind your lower back, then pushing backward lightly with straight arms.
- Sitting upright with legs outstretched in front of you, passing a towel across the ball of one foot, just beneath the toe joints, then lightly pulling on both ends of the towel to move your toes toward you.
- Standing upright, straightening one arm until it is horizontal across your chest, then using your other hand to lightly press the elbow into your chest.
These are just a few examples, but your sports injury prevention specialist can help you devise a more comprehensive program to achieve high levels of flexibility. They will also help you to stretch in a safe and sustainable manner.
Cross-training and targeted exercises
Getting better at playing tennis means playing a lot of tennis! But there are other things you can do to improve overall conditioning. Cross-training means incorporating other exercises into your routine — such as weight-training for strength or jogging for cardio. Targeted exercises are those specifically designed to improve your tennis form and reduce injury risk — such as box jumping to improve upper leg strength and hip flexibility. Again, your physical therapy specialist can help you identify these targeted exercises and use them in a safe manner.
What Are the Key Techniques and Practices to Prevent Injuries During Tennis?
Preparation is vital, but you can also take steps to avoid injury on the day of your tennis session or match. Here are a few things to bear in mind:
Pay attention to form and technique
While you play, be mindful of how you are moving. Practice footwork and proper striking of the ball, eliminating the chronic mistakes that lead to overuse injuries or the awkward movements that can result in acute injuries. Pay attention to your coaching and the techniques you've learned, and try to maintain this form. If you start getting too tired, take a break when possible.
Warming up and cooling down
Your warm-up should take at least fifteen minutes, up to around half an hour. Jumping rope for several minutes helps provide a general warm-up, as well as honing balance, agility, and coordination. Jumping jacks also provide comprehensive warm-up across the whole body. Knee lifts to the front and knee bends to bring your heel up to the back of your glutes help to stretch out the lower legs. Shadow tennis (i.e., making controlled swinging and striking motions) gets your body used to the movements you will be making. Spend a similar time cooling down afterward, running through the stretching and light shadow tennis components of your warm-up.
Rest and relaxation
Tennis is great fun, and practice is important, but you need to give your body time to rest and recuperate too. After an intensive match, give yourself at least a few days off, preventing overuse injuries or acute injuries caused by muscle fatigue. Plan your training schedule carefully so you are getting plenty of rest.
Schedule an Appointment with JAG Physical Therapy
Here at JAG PT, we are proud to provide expert physical therapy services to our patients as they enjoy all the benefits of athletics in an injury-free manner. This includes delivering expert sports injury prevention services to help you avoid tennis injuries, as well as rehabilitation to get you back on your feet and out on the court sooner rather than later. Contact us today or schedule your appointment to get started with a custom PT plan.