Playing tennis can do your body a world of good, but its high-impact nature means it can take its toll on your body too, and various sprains and injuries are commonly associated with playing the sport. One of the more well known is commonly referred to as 'tennis leg', and this debilitating injury can put a serious dent in your playing career without some due care and treatment.
What is tennis leg?
The term tennis leg is a catch-all term referring to any sprain, strain or injury of the plantaris muscle, a small muscle located in the calf. The tiny, slender plantaris muscle is not the most important part of your anatomy, and its functionality is generally limited to providing a small amount of mobility to the knee and ankle, and supplementing the stabilising effect of the Achilles tendon in your heel. In fact, the muscle is entirely absent in 7-20% of the human population -- however, if you possess plantaris muscles and one becomes injured, this diminutive little muscle can cause a whole lot of unpleasantness.
Tennis leg can cause varying degrees of pain, and symptoms may appear immediately after the injury occurs or appear later during rest or renewal of exercise. Common tennis leg symptoms include:
- Pain: The pain caused by tennis leg can occur throughout the calf but is generally focused lower down toward the ankle, as the point where the plantaris muscle connects to the Achilles tendon is relatively weak and prone to strains and tears. Flexing the ankle may increase pain intensity.
- Swelling: Swollen areas are often tender to the touch and may be accompanied by skin redness.
- Loss of mobility: Attempting to move the knee and/or ankle joint may become more difficult or painful, and you may notice a decrease in the load bearing strength of the injured leg.
- Audible popping sound: This may occur at the moment of injury, and can indicate a serious sprain or muscle tear. Popping sounds may reoccur if you try to use the injured leg.
How can my podiatrist help treat my tennis leg, and prevent it reoccurring?
If you have suffered a tennis leg injury, your first step should obviously be to consult a doctor and have the injury examined and treated. However, aftercare and proper rehabilitation of a leg that has suffered a plantaris muscle injury is important and will help you to recover more quickly and regain strength in the injured leg without permanent loss of functionality. One of the best ways to do this is by consulting a podiatrist, who may offer the following treatments:
- Gait correction: In some cases of tennis leg, the plantaris muscle has been placed under excessive strain by an improper gait. Poor weight distribution, overpronation, or even simple defects such as fallen arches can all dramatically alter a person's gait, and your podiatrist will inspect your feet, legs and ankles while you walk to check for abnormalities which may contribute to tennis leg. If abnormal gait is detected, the problem can be alleviated with foot splints, orthotic shoe inserts or other physical devices designed to encourage proper walking posture.
- Soft tissue manipulation: Manipulating the soft muscles of the lower leg with procedures such as deep tissue massage can increase blood flow to the injured area, promoting faster healing and reducing the likelihood of unwanted blood clotting.
- Lower limb supports: Your podiatrist may provide you with muscle-supporting sleeves, designed to be worn over the shins and calves. These compressive sleeves work by giving the calf muscles (including the plantaris muscles) an external force to brace against, decreasing the amount of strain they endure.
- Motion exercises: Strengthening and flexibility exercises during your rehabilitation period are key, as they will minimise the risk of permanent loss of strength and/or functionality. Limited, low-impact exercise during the healing period can help this process along, and may be done under the supervision and guidance of your podiatrist.