Whether you've just started out playing or you've been playing for years, neck and back pain is something most tennis players have experienced. Knowing how tennis affects your upper back muscles can help you figure out what is the best course of action to treat it.
Today, we'll help you gain a better understanding of why tennis players frequently suffer from neck and back pain. We also help you learn how to identify whether your neck and back pain is something more serious that warrants a trip to the doctor or ER.
Then, at the end of this article, we'll share some prevention and treatment tips to help you play tennis pain-free. But before all that, let's talk about what classifies as neck pain.
What Is Neck Pain?
Neck pain is characterized by a heavy feeling in the neck, muscle tightness or spasms, and decreased neck mobility or trouble moving your neck. You may experience headaches along with neck pain.
It can be isolated around your neck area, or it can spread towards your head, shoulders, arms, and back. Similarly, back pain can also contribute to pain in the neck.
This pain may go away after a few days with home treatment, or it may last for months. If your pain has persisted for several months or longer, then you have chronic neck pain. In this instance, you should definitely get it checked out by a doctor or physical therapist.
How Playing Tennis Affects Your Upper Back Muscles
The first step to treating that pain in your neck is by figuring out what caused it. Below, we've listed down all the different ways playing tennis can affect your neck and back muscles. Identifying which of these causes apply to you is important. This will help you determine whether you can treat your pain at home or if you should seek professional help for your injury.
Many tennis players develop a playing stance wherein they hunch their backs and stick their heads forwards. We've seen instances where this may also result in the shoulders tilted forward.
This is obviously not ideal posture, and yet plenty of tennis players still do it. Having this kind of playing stance causes weak upper back muscles and tight chest muscles.
These tight muscles eventually get even weaker, and then they only tighten up even more. Sooner or later, you'll start to develop a rounded back and shoulders, which will only cause additional stress to your upper back and surrounding muscles. A poor playing stance is one of the main causes of pain in tennis players.
Tennis is a very exciting and competitive sport. As players ourselves, we know how hard it can be to take time off. Your competitive nature leads you to train hard day in, day out. But if you're playing daily without giving your muscles the rest they need, you'll do more harm than good to your body in the long run. And, it will affect your performance, too.
You may be familiar with tennis elbow, for example. This is one of the most common overuse injuries in tennis. But, it's not the only ailment you may experience from going too hard on the tennis court.
In tennis, you use a lot of rotating motions with your upper body. Some of that rotation comes from your hips, while the other rotation comes from your thoracic spine or upper back. Constant use of the muscles around the thoracic spine will cause micro-tears, which makes your upper back muscles tighten.
Tight muscles limit how much blood flow reaches that area. If your muscles aren't getting as much blood flow as they need, that means they also aren't getting the necessary nutrients and energy they need to stay healthy. Your body needs time to restore and re-energize if you want to get better at the sport. Keep in mind that resting is just as important as training. Your nutrition and sleep will play a role in preventing overuse pain or injury, too.
If you look closely, you might notice that tennis players have imbalanced muscles. You can see it in their arms. Their dominant arm is usually a bit bigger than the other. Because of the one-sided nature of tennis, muscular imbalance is common. But this isn't just a cosmetic issue that may cause you to look a bit silly - it can lead to serious injury if not addressed. When it comes to tennis., muscular imbalance affects your arms but your entire spine.
Surely you've heard of scoliosis. It's when your spine is curved abnormally. Well, there are two types of scoliosis—structural and functional. Structural scoliosis is caused by congenital defects, neuromuscular disorders, or injuries and infections in the spine.
Functional scoliosis is caused by external factors, on the other hand. Bad posture and repeated asymmetrical movements are two of the main causes of functional scoliosis. These are common when you play tennis. When treating functional scoliosis, you don't focus on the spine. Rather, you focus on fixing the muscles that surround it. You'll know if you have functional scoliosis if:
- Your shoulders and hips aren't leveled
- One of your shoulder blades prominently stick out
- Your waistline is flat on one side but has a curve on the other
- Your ribs are unbalanced when bending forward
- Your head isn't centered over your body
A herniated disk isn't common in tennis, but it can occur if you aren't careful. Tennis places constant trauma to the spine. The cushioning between your spinal cord can become inflamed. This ends up compressing your nerves, causing pain in the affected area. Most herniated disks occur on the lower back, but they can also occur in the upper back and neck.
If you're familiar with Andy Murray, you'll know that he had a herniated disk that he needed to have operated on a few years back. Apparently, he had a herniated disk for about 18 months. He wasn't able to attend a few matches because of the pain. Nevertheless, he still won a Wimbledon before getting his surgery.
Now, we're not telling you this to say you should ignore a herniated disk. Tennis is what caused his herniated disk. And because he continued to play before getting it checked, he had to undergo surgery. The lesson here is that you shouldn't train so hard that you herniate your disk in the first place. And if this injury does occur, you shouldn't wait for your back to give in completely before getting it checked.
How To Tell If Your Neck and Back Pain Is Serious
Pain in the neck is usually minor. But there are rare instances when neck and back pain is a symptom of something more serious, and might even be completely unrelated to tennis. If you notice that neck and back pain appeared after a stumble you took while playing, you'll want to get that checked by a doctor.
But what if it didn't happen after a fall? Here are other signs that your neck and back pain is more serious than it may appear:
Pain Doesn't Go Away
If your neck and back pain hasn't gone away after months, then you're suffering from chronic pain. Any type of chronic pain should be checked by a doctor, and you'll want to get it checked as soon as possible. The longer you let your chronic pain go untreated, the worse it'll get. Your quality of life will significantly decrease, which can also affect your mental health.
If you feel any shooting pains radiating from your neck or back and into your arms or shoulders, that's a sign that you might have nerve compression. Treatment for this requires the help of a professional.
If you experience any numbness or feelings of "pins and needles", that may also be a sign of nerve compression. Or, it could be a sign that you have a disease in the nervous system, such as multiple sclerosis.
How To Treat Pain In The Back And Neck Muscles At Home
If you don't notice any serious symptoms, such as the ones we listed above, then your pain will probably go away in a few days or weeks at most. Here are some home remedies you can try to speed up your back and neck's recovery process:
Get Proper Rest
First things first - give yourself a few days off from tennis or heavy exercise. Your body needs time to heal. Now, that doesn't mean you should just lay in bed for a week. In fact, light exercise can help speed up your recovery. We encourage you to take a few walks a day while healing.
Ice & Heat Packs
To reduce the swelling in your neck or back, apply an ice pack for 15-20 minutes. You can apply the ice pack as many times as you want throughout the day. Make sure to wrap the ice pack with a cloth so it doesn't touch your bare skin. After a few days, switch to a heat pack and do the same thing. If at any point the ice or heat packs feel uncomfortable, discontinue use.
Over-the-counter pain relievers such as aspirin, ibuprofen, or acetaminophen (Tylenol) can help give you instant pain relief. If OTC medication doesn't work, contact your doctor, and they might prescribe a stronger pain reliever.
Light Neck Exercises
When your neck starts to feel less stiff, and you get your mobility back, you should take the time to do some light neck stretches and exercises.
Something as simple as bending your neck to one side, holding it for 30 seconds, and then switching to the other side can help. Nodding your head up and down slowly, around 8 to 10 times, can also help to stretch the front and back of your neck.
If you're unfamiliar with neck strengthening exercises, keep reading - we'll cover preventing neck injury in the future through exercise.
How To Prevent Pain In The Upper Back Muscles In The Future
Once you've treated your neck and back pain, you need to take the proper steps to prevent it from happening again. Here are some tips you should keep in mind to stop your neck and back pain from coming back while you play tennis:
Stretch & Warm Up Before Playing
Stretching and warming up are important parts of your routine. These activities increase the blood flow in your body, making your muscles more flexible. This lowers the risks of tears, strains, and other injuries. Never skip your warming up.
Be More Mindful Of Your Posture
When you play tennis, you tend to be so focused on the game that you forget to be mindful about your posture. Try to make a conscious effort to better your posture and make it a habit. If you improve your posture, your upper back muscles get stronger, and you'll be able to play tennis better too. You may even want to consider hiring a technique coach.
Training your upper back and neck muscles can help develop the strength you need, not only to improve your game but to prevent pain and to improve your overall posture. A lot of people tend to overlook training their neck, but if you're going to train your upper back, you should train your entire upper back—and that includes your neck.
Our necks are responsible for carrying the weight of our heads which affects the rest of our spine. It also takes a lot of impact and stress whenever we twist and turn our heads while playing. By strengthening your neck muscles, you decrease the risks of getting any neck injuries during your tennis matches. For a complete guide on neck training, visit our blog.
Train Your Neck With The #1 Neck Strengthener In The World—Iron Neck
Keep your neck and upper back muscles healthy and in the best condition for tennis when you train with the world's number one neck strengthener—the Iron Neck!
The Iron Neck is used by thousands of athletes and physical therapists all around the globe—and for good reason. It's the most efficient and effective neck training equipment there is. You can use it to strengthen your neck to prevent injuries or rehabilitate them. So whether you're prepping yourself for intense competition or you're healing from overuse, the Iron Neck is what you need.
And if you're on a tight budget, our head harness can also help you achieve a stronger neck. It's not as efficient as the Iron Neck since the neck exercises you can do with a head harness are limited. But it's better than not training your neck at all.
For full-body at-home training, we also offer various resistance training equipment, such as resistance bands and resistance bars. We even have resistance band door anchors that keep your resistance training equipment secure for any pull exercises you might want to try. Grab all your equipment today and start developing a stronger, more resilient upper back and neck - your tennis career depends on it!