Form: Back to Basics
In addition to muscle weakness and poor flexibility, certain on-court activities are leading contributors to back injuries. “Players hitting powerful, open-stance shots use a lot of upper-body rotation,” says Roetert. “And if your lower back muscles aren’t prepared for it, you’re set up for injury.” Today’s lighter, longer racquets exacerbate the problem by changing swing patterns and creating more torque on the back.
A supersonic serve can be another red flag. Brenda Schultz-McCarthy held the honor of being the fastest server on the WTA Tour from 1990 to ’97, logging a personal-best 123-m.p.h. zinger at Wimbledon. But she was forced to the sidelines early in ’98 because of a herniated disk, and she’s still recovering from surgery she had last fall. “If you arch your back too much in a serve, and your body can’t support it, you can wrench it badly,” says Groppel. Another danger point is overreaching for a backhand or extending for a volley. This can cause you to twist or turn your trunk too far.
Even the playing surface affects the back. Hard courts pound joints and stress the spine; clay courts mean long rallies and muscle fatigue. And on grass, players who reach down – instead of bending at the knees – to hit low-bouncing balls are prone to lower-back injuries.
Recovery: Back on your Feet
If your back goes out while you’re playing – or while you’re bending over to pick up the newspaper – grab an ice pack and swallow a couple of nonsteroidal anti-inflammatories (Advil, Aleve, or plain old aspirin). “It’s a good idea to get on top of the pain quickly, or it’ll cause your back to spasm even more,” Kibler says.
A note of caution before applying ice to your back: Steer clear of the spine. “Ice can cause problems with nerve tissue, so you have to be careful,” says Groppel. Your best bet is to keep a paper cup filled with ice in the freezer and massage the injured area, but for no more than 10 minutes at a time.
And while it’s tempting to retreat to bed when your back gives way, don’t get too comfortable. “We used to think that extended bed rest was the best treatment for back pain,” says Kibler, “but we now know that it’s not a good idea to immobilize your back for more than 36 to 48 hours. This causes even greater stiffness and weakness.” He recommends RICE (Rest, Ice, Compression, Elevation) for a couple of days, then gradually adding light walking and flexibility exercises. If the pain persists for more than 10 days, consult a physician.
But don’t rush back to your racquet, either. “You have to let the injury heal,” says Gary Wadler, M.D., a sports-medicine internist in Manhasset, N.Y., and a former physician for the U.S. Open. “It’s easy to ignore the problem or wish it away, but if you try to do too much too soon, you’ll end up with a recurring problem.” To treat a basic muscle strain, refrain from play for at least two weeks. More intense pain may require a longer break from the courts.
Prevention is Better Than Cure
Finally, if you really want to avoid becoming another back statistic, take steps to avoid the problem in the first place. Stretch regularly and keep your abs and back muscles strong and toned. “The underlying reasons for back injury,” says Kibler, “are most often inflexibility or muscle weakness. If you don’t address these issues, it’s just a train wreck waiting to happen.”
Get Back to Where You Once Belonged
You can banish back pain before it begins by toning your trunk muscles and increasing your flexibility. If you feel pain during any of the following movements, stop immediately and consult a physician.
Lie face down on the floor. Slowly lift and then lower legs, keeping both feet together throughout. Do two sets of 10 to 15 reps.
Lie face up on floor, right knee bent, right foot flat on the floor, left heel crossed on right knee. Keeping right hand behind head and left arm flat on the floor palm down, curl right elbow diagonally toward left knee, leading from the shoulder. Do two sets of 10 to 15 resp on each side.
“Superman” Back Extension
Lie face down on the floor, arms extended directly overhead. Alternate between raising left arm and right leg simultaneously, then right arm and left leg. Do two sets of 10 to 15 repetitions on each side.
Sitting on floor, bend right leg so that right foot is outside left knee. Bring left arm around right knee, resting elbow on top of the knee. Slowly turn head and upper body to the right, looking over right shoulder. Hold for 20 to 30 seconds; switch sides. Repeat three times.
Sit and Reach
Sit on floor, legs extended straight out in front, ankles flexed. Keeping back flat, lean forward with both arms outstretched and try to touch toes. Hold for 20 to 30 seconds. Repeat three times.
Consider Yourself Warned
You can back away from injury by incorporating the following into your on- and off-court play.
- Make like a Boy Scout. Before you ever get near a court, be prepared with a proper workout program. Start a series of stretching and strengthening exercises for a few weeks before beginning any serious training.
- Get warm. Don’t go from your car to the court without loosening up first. Trying to stretch for the ball or slam an overhead with tight, inflexible muscles will knock you down faster than a heavyweight’s uppercut. Spend at least five to 10 minutes doing light jogging and Stretching before you hit the court.
- Shoulder the load. If you’re prone to back problems, don’t play with an open stance. Stepping toward the ball and hitting from your shoulders will help reduce back stress.
- Kinder, gentler courts. Whenever possible, choose softer surfaces like clay or Har-Tru over bone-rattling hard courts, which can stress your joints and muscles and lead to chronic injuries.
- Serves you right. Certain tennis strokes make you more susceptible to back injuries. The serve is one of them. All that turning, tossing, and torqueing is bound to put some strain on your spine. To make sure you’re not compromising your skeletal structure, take a lesson from a pro and learn the proper technique for hitting a serve.