Is Tennis Bad For Your Back?
Is tennis bad for your back? The answer is maybe. Why do you ask this question? Are you a 5-0 player with back pain on your back hand or kick serve? Have you just started playing and noticed sciatica? Do you have back stiffness, and wondering if you should even start playing?
For the avid player, an episode of back pain is expected, but with proper training and modifications, you should be able to continue the enjoyment of the sport. You should also know that the body mechanics required to play tennis does cause stresses on your back.
As you already know, control of the ball trajectory, spin, and speed is crucial to execution of a winning strategy. The ideal swing demands foot work and positioning of your body to deliver optimal force at the moment of racket to ball contact. A stable stance delivers more power from the ground to the ball. Tennis coaches will tell you that the force should be generated from your legs, into your hips, with transition through your torso and spine, and ending with a fluid swing from your shoulders to your wrists. This transfer of power from the ground to the ball works smoothly if all your body parts are healthy without any degeneration. The reality is by the time you are 30 years old, most already have a bit of wear and tear to the body. To give an example, arthritis of the big toe may not allow you to push your feet off the ground, causing less force transmission to your hips. This lessens the energy. To then generate the same impact on the ball, the other parts of your body, the hips, the spine, and the arms must work harder.
The spine needs to absorb the force from the hips, which causes some compression of the discs. Discs that are already bulged from the normal wear and tear can transiently deform, causing pressure on the nerve sac.
The rotation necessary for the swing puts pressure on the facet joints and the many ligaments, tendons, and muscles that make up the spine. The rotation will cause transient narrowing of the neuro foramen, which can squeeze the nerves. In addition, the rotational forces stresses the annular fibers of the disc, potentially leading to a disc herniation.
As you can see, the natural wear and tear of your spine can cause the development of back pain when playing tennis.
So, what should a tennis player do? I am all for doing things to keep playing. Besides the physical activity, tennis also has positive social and psychological effects. Certain modifications may allow continued enjoyment of tennis. Make sure to take lessons, as bad swing mechanics will only make matters worse. Make sure to get proper foot wear. Warm up your muscles, and ligaments by a gentle jog, or brisk walk before any stretching. A daily Core strengthening program will go a long way in avoiding prolonged back pain. Cross train by doing yoga, pilates, or tai chi. There has been studies about asymmetric development of muscles because of the “handedness of Tennis”. Light weight training can help balance this asymmetry. Make sure to concentrate on stretching your hips, back, shoulders and wrists before playing. Transition to doubles play. For players who have development of facet joint arthritis and spinal stenosis, consider a flatter serve, or avoiding the kick serve. As we have discussed in our spinal stenosis videos, extending your back can cause increasing spinal stenosis symptoms. The Hyper extension necessary for the kick serve can pinch your nerves.
If you have never played tennis, but want to consider it, despite your back pain, make sure to get a lesson or two. If the pain is not too severe, and you are passionate about your new sport, I would encourage it with the recommendations just mentioned. In the end, I would rather people be active. If tennis is it, please find a way to make it work for you.
Thanks for reading. Stay fit, stay active.
- Bańkosz Z, Barczyk-Pawelec K. Habitual and ready positions in female table tennis players and their relation to the prevalence of back pain. PeerJ. 2020;8:e9170. PubMed PMID: 32596033
- Zemková E, Kováčiková Z, Zapletalová L. Is There a Relationship Between Workload and Occurrence of Back Pain and Back Injuries in Athletes? Front Physiol. 2020;11:894. PubMed PMID: 32792989
Last modified: January 15, 2021