The Road to Relief: Self-massage with a Tennis Ball

Neck pain during training. Athlete running Caucasian blond woman

By: Sammy Cusimano

“Relax the body, stimulate the mind, invigorate the spirit” – these profound words are the key to a healthy and balanced life of true wellness. Life should not be endured but rather lived to its fullest every moment of every day. In order to achieve this level of harmony, unforeseen obstacles such as chronic pain must be overcome as effectively as possible. Massages, acupuncture, chiropractic care and physical therapy are all excellent sources of pain relief; however, finding a daily, affordable solution to physical discomfort that is within a typical monthly budget is the primary goal on the path to pain-free living.

An excellent do-it-yourself method of relieving back and even neck pain is found in the simplicity of a tennis ball. For only a couple of dollars, you can unleash a whole new world of benefits that this common household item is capable of providing. The pliable nature and round shape of a tennis ball makes it the perfect tool to relieving back and neck pain through pressure placed upon myofascial trigger points. The advantage of using a tennis ball to relieve pain is that you do not need a partner to help during the process. It is a pain relief method that can be done by yourself at any time. Whether you are at home, in the office, on vacation, etc., the benefits of this technique are easily obtained through very basic, easy-to-learn exercises for releasing the tension of “knots” in the back and neck. A tennis ball massage can be a very effective component to any pain relief regimen.

In order to understand how a tennis ball can relieve back pain, awareness of the actual root cause of the pain felt in the lower back is crucial. In many cases, back pain is connected to the sciatic nerve. Inflammation and pain are very common when the sciatic nerve is compressed. Sciatica, which is a condition known for a radiating pain down the path of the sciatic nerve, can be caused by a herniated disk, bone spur, narrowing of the spine or even an inflamed piriformis muscle.

Located in the buttocks near the hip joint, the piriformis muscle is crucial to lower body movement because it keeps the hip joint stable, while also being the primary muscle used for lifting and rotating the thigh in the direction away from the body. Because of its location right next to the sciatic nerve, an inflamed or spasming piriformis muscle can cause a lot of pain when it compresses the nerve resulting in discomfort that travels all the way down the entire leg.
There are many effective stretches to help relieve the pain of an inflamed piriformis muscle. While lying on your back with your legs crossed, similarly to the position of sitting in a chair, gently pull the legs in their crossed position towards your chest. The lower back along with the glutes, hips and piriformis muscle will all stretch simultaneously. Once you are comfortable with the basic technique of the stretch, place a tennis ball right under the spot that feels the most tense and slowly begin the stretch again. Alternate each side for 20-30 seconds.

Sciatica is the result of a more serious issue related to the spine or a severely inflamed muscle; however, some types of back pain are due to “knots” that occur within the muscle because of factors such as over-exertion, a sedentary lifestyle, poor posture or even dehydration. Muscle “knots” are sensitive to the touch and seem to contract even when the muscle is not being used or flexed. The official medical term for a muscle “knot” is a myofascial trigger point. When muscle fibers tense and tighten under a lot of exertion or stress, the bump-like “knots” can cause a lot of pain.

Treatment of muscle “knots” is a multi-faceted approach consisting of rest, alternating hot and cold therapy, stretching, anti-inflammation medications (such as ibuprofen) and massage therapy. Daily massage, via the use of a tennis ball, can help alleviate a lot of the pain associated with muscle “knots”. The pressure applied during a massage to a “knot” will increase blood circulation, which in turn loosens up the muscle thus relieving the pain and tension of the myofascial trigger point. The increased blood flow helps to deliver the necessary nutrients to the muscle to help it heal as quickly as possible. Some individuals step up their self-massage routine by using even harder athletic balls such as baseballs to increase the pressure being applied to an extremely tight muscle “knot”.

The basic technique of using a tennis ball to massage a myofascial trigger point is as simple as it is effective. First, lay on the ground or a firm surface with the knees bent and the feet flat. This is a very similar starting position to a standard abdominal crunch. Next, roll slightly to one side and place the tennis ball at the center of where the pain is most severe. Then, begin the motion of the therapeutic movement by gently swaying forward and backward using the feet for power. After moving forward and backward for a few repetitions, switch to moving side to side using the hips and core muscles. The pressure of the tennis ball on the affected area will help to alleviate the tenderness and stiffness associated with a “knot” in a muscle.

Self-massages with a tennis ball can be done not only every day, but also multiple times per day, if they are effectively providing relief. Another option for self-massage is a foam roller. Much like a tennis ball, a foam roller provides a very effective and affordable method of applying deep tissue massage to a muscle “knot”. If a tennis ball is not quite large enough to create enough pressure on a tender area of the body, then investing in a foam roller could be the best alternative. They are easily found at sporting goods stores.

The sensation of using a tennis ball or even a foam roller as a self-massaging tool can provide the right amount of relief that you need to get your body feeling 100% again, after a strenuous workout or even an injury. As with all forms of deep tissue massage, it will be somewhat uncomfortable at first, but the pain will be tolerable enough to push through for the overall good of relieving the “knots” that are causing chronic pain within the body. Invest in a tennis ball or foam roller and get the relief you need by making it “hurt
so good”!

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