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As an athlete, you've likely experienced muscle tension and soreness associated with workouts, sports practices and games. And you've probably also experienced back, shoulder and neck stiffness caused by mental tension from the pressures of school, work and preparing for sports events. Tennis ball therapy is an easy and natural way to ease such muscle pain and mental tension.
Tennis ball therapy can help alleviate either occasional or chronic conditions that hinder workouts and sports-related activities. It's simple and effective—and you don't have to resort to medications, which have potential side effects, or apply greasy pain-relief ointments. Using a round, spongy ball against the weight of the body eliminates tender spots (i.e., "knots" and "trigger points" in muscles) causing pain. So, before seeking out a massage therapist, athletic trainer, physical therapist or chiropractor, try the tennis ball approach.
Note: A tennis ball is safer and provides more cushion for your body than a hard baseball.
Treating the Back and Hips
Although stretching or applying an ice pack can help ease achy muscles, another therapeutic modality is a deep muscle massage with a tennis ball.
Lie on your back on a mat and place a tennis ball under the area with the most discomfort. Do not place the ball on your spine but, rather, on the muscles on either side of the spine. Search for a sore spot by pressing down on the ball using your bodyweight.
Once you've located the trigger point, use your weight to press the ball deep into the area. Hold it for 10 seconds and release. Then search for other tender areas along the lower back and hips by moving the ball up or down on the mat. If you're experiencing low back pain, but can't find a sore spot, try your hips. Trigger points in the hips also cause low back problems.
*Note: In cases of severe pain, where there is swelling, bruising or inflammation, deep tissue massage is not advised. Consult a physician or other health care professional for treatment. However, for general stiffness or soreness, tennis ball therapy is a wonderful remedy.
Treating the Shoulder and Neck
As with the back, tender spots in the shoulders and neck cause stiffness and restrict movements. Tennis ball therapy works well for these parts of the body.
First, lie on your back and place the tennis ball under an upper shoulder. Lift your hips off the mat and press into the ball, seeking tender spots. At each point of tenderness, hold for 10 seconds and release.
Next, roll onto your side. Place the ball under your shoulder, seeking tender spots. Press against the ball for 10 seconds, using your bodyweight. Repeat, then turn on your stomach and place the ball on the front part of the same shoulder seeking more tender spots. You can even get close to the chest area. Do not place the ball on bone—perform the therapy only on muscle. Repeat for 10 seconds on each tender spot.
Once you've treated the shoulder, move it around to determine whether the pain or stiffness has diminished and if range of motion is improved. As with the back and other muscle groups, tennis ball therapy may bring a limited amount of relief or an immediate, dramatic improvement. This deep tissue massage can be repeated a few hours later.
Strengthening the Hands, Wrists, Forearms and Chest
Besides using tennis ball therapy for muscle tension, the ball can come into play as a muscle strengthener, benefitting athletes of every sport.
For hand, wrist and forearm strength, squeeze the ball in one hand for 10 seconds, release for five seconds and squeeze again three more times. Repeat with your other hand.
A great isometric exercise for chest muscles is to squeeze the tennis ball with both hands at chest level, as if you were trying to crush the ball with both hands. Hold the tension for 10 seconds while breathing regularly.
Tennis ball therapy is especially useful for areas of the body (such as back, neck and shoulders) where you cannot do a self-massage. But remember, massage is not advised if there is swelling or inflammation. Get checked out by a doctor. Otherwise, combine deep tissue massage with icing (10 minutes on, 10 minutes off for an hour) and light stretching for optimal results in pain relief.
Jim Carpentier is a certified strength and conditioning specialist, a New Jersey-licensed massage therapist and a health/fitness writer. He currently serves as associate health and wellness director at the Greater Morristown YMCA in Cedar Knolls, N.J.