As tennis is a sport that requires movement from the entire body, these can creep up in a range of different areas.
This is especially true if you have some muscular imbalances (which most people do), as you may have one part of your body overcompensating for a weakness in another.
One of the areas that comes under the most amount of stress and strain is the shoulder.
Every tennis shot you hit involves the shoulder to a certain extent, so understanding how to protect your shoulder from unwanted wear and tear is an important part of injury prevention in tennis.
The serve can be the main culprit for inducing shoulder pain, since it is a complex overhead movement that may not be replicated in any other ways for a recreational tennis player.
If the only time you need overhead strength, stability and control is when you’re serving in your tennis session once per week, it’s no wonder you get injured!
You’ve not built up any strength in that movement pattern!
There are a range of different ways that you can get a sore shoulder from playing tennis, but luckily there is also a lot that you can do to relieve the pain and even prevent it from coming back.
So, if you are currently experiencing shoulder pain from playing tennis, need to treat it or simply want to avoid getting it in the first place, then carry on reading!
What Type Of Shoulder Pain Do You Get From Tennis?
Shoulder pain can be developed from playing tennis due to imbalances in the soft tissue around the shoulder joint itself.
These are very commonly aggravated and actually altered by repetitive movements such as serving.
This is hardly surprising when you think about it.
The serve requires a lot of power and effort, most of which will go through the shoulder, meaning there is often a lot of strain concentrated into a relatively small part of the body.
This is exacerbated by the fact that the serve, along with the follow through on most groundstrokes, is a movement that is always pushing the shoulder upwards and forwards.
Therefore, it is inevitable that you will at some point develop some degree of repetitive stress injury from tennis.
This is likely to result in a pinching of the rotator cuff tendon which can cause a lot of discomfort and almost feel like a trapped nerve.
You may also experience clicking in the shoulder which could be from repetitive damage to the tendons and soft tissues.
If left untreated this could lead to frozen shoulder, a condition that could permanently limit your range of motion in the shoulder joint.
Don’t panic if you are experiencing either of these symptoms, they may not be as serious as you first think.
However, if you do have more severe pain after playing tennis, consult your doctor for professional guidance.
Likely Causes of Shoulder Pain
It is important to look after your physical conditioning as a tennis player.
Doing so can really help reduce the risk of injuries and improve your performance on court.
Despite this, there are a few different forms of shoulder pain that you may develop from playing tennis, however their causes are likely to be similar.
Since tennis requires a lot of similar movements that need to be repeated time after time, it is likely this overloading of the shoulder muscles that is causing your pain.
This is then made even worse when you add muscle imbalances, weakness and instability into the equation.
This is a recipe for developing shoulder pain, as your shoulder is simply not primed for repetitive, intense activity.
Therefore, the constant pushing upwards and forwards can cause tightness in the muscles at the back of the shoulder.
This results in issues with the ball joint (humeral head) moving around the glenoid socket.
The tightness in the musculature in the back of the shoulder actually forces the humeral head to rise up in the glenoid socket, which then causes pinching of the rotator cuff tendon.
This is what you feel when you have a painful pinching sensation at the front of your shoulder during or after a tennis session.
This issue is that, along with the acute pain from the pinching itself, you also won’t be able to strengthen the area until you have addressed the muscle imbalance.
This is because there is a limited range of motion, and since the majority of tennis activity (particularly serving) takes place at the full extent of your shoulder’s range of motion, it is impossible to strengthen the shoulder appropriately when you cannot reach full range of motion above the head.
So, it is actually the muscle tightness at the back of the shoulder that causes pain in the front of the shoulder, and this is often caused due to a lack of mobility or strength above the head, simply because most people do not perform many activities above their head on a daily basis.
This means that additional stretching is needed to relieve the tight area, along with deliberate strengthening to improve the shoulder’s ability to deal with the repetitive overload that tennis creates.
So, now we understand what actually causes shoulder pain in the first place, let’s deal with treatment and prevention.
How You Can Treat It
Fortunately, there are a number of things you can do to actually treat your shoulder pain once you have diagnosed it. These include strengthening, stabilizing and stretching.
The first thing you need to do when you are experiencing acute shoulder pain from tennis is to try and relieve the pain.
Of course you may decide to use creams or lotions to relieve your symptoms whilst you are playing, but in terms of actually easing the muscle tightness you need to stretch.
The most common stretch for this affected area is to bring your arm across your body and hold it in place with the opposite arm, stretching the back of the shoulder.
This is great for short term relief and is easy to remember and perform.
However, there is a better alternative that targets the back of the shoulder and puts more emphasis on the muscles actually causing the pain.
The issue with the first stretch mentioned here is that it effectively pulls the shoulder joint across the body, so a large proportion of the stretching movement is used up by moving the shoulder joint, rather than actually stretching the tight muscles themselves.
However, the so-called ‘sleeper stretch’ relieves the tightness from the back of the shoulder without altering the position of the joint itself.
To perform this, you need to lay on your side with your legs level with your torso and your affected arm outstretched perpendicular to your body.
This is a common sleeping position, hence the name!
Lift your forearm up so you create a right angle between your upper and lower arm, then place your opposite forearm on top of your affected forearm.
Then, slowly push your affected forearm towards your hips, whilst stabilizing your shoulder.
You should hold this for 1 to 2 minutes or until your pain has eased, remembering to breathe through the stretch as this will further ease your pain.
The aim here is to stretch out the tight muscles at the back of the shoulder, whilst keeping the shoulder joint stable.
If you are feeling any pain in the front of your shoulder, adjust your body position to put less weight on your collar bone area as this could cause some discomfort.
Also, if you are struggling to feel a stretch in the back of your shoulder, then adjust the angle of your lower arm, as this can place more stress on different areas of the musculature.
Finally, if you need to progress the stretch and feel more of it, you can place a foam roller or pad underneath your lower arm, so there is more of a stretch.
Once you have stretched and relieved some of the acute pain you are feeling in your shoulder, the next thing on the agenda is to strengthen the shoulders to improve your capacity to load up and take the repetitive overload needed to play tennis.
There are a wide array of exercises you can do to strengthen the shoulders, particularly in the overhead movement pattern.
Some of our favourites are the standing military press, resistance band work and the lateral raise.
The standing military press utilises either a barbell or a set of heavy dumbbells and sees you lift the weight above and in front of your head.
There is a tendency for people to lean too far back and involve the knees in this exercise. If you are doing this, lower the weight and start again.
The aim here is to keep your legs out of the movement, engage your core and keep it tight (this helps to stabilize your back and shoulders), and use your shoulder muscles to lift the weight above your head.
Performing this exercise regularly will help strengthen your shoulder muscles using the overhead, extended range of motion. This will make serving a lot easier!
Our second exercise involves a resistance band.
There are a lot of different exercises you can do here, but one of our favourites is replicating the overhead serving motion using a band that is anchored to the floor.
This creates a realistic movement that directly replicates the service motion, but allows you to load up the ‘weighted’ resistance and achieve progressive overload.
The idea here is to perform a high number of repetitions whilst keeping your shoulder joint stable and not compromising your form.
You can also use resistance bands to target the rotator cuff by laying on the floor and moving your arm through full range of motion.
Grab the band and start with your elbow outstretched to the side, then flex your arm from the floor down by your rib cage up and over to over your head, all whilst keeping your elbow firmly on the floor.
This is a great exercise used by the professionals to keep their rotator cuff in good working condition.
Finally, the lateral raise is a great strengthening exercise used to build up the side of your shoulder, more specifically the lateral deltoid.
This is the middle part of the shoulder and is not often strengthened in everyday life, so it is important to build up the capacity for load here.
To perform the lateral raise, simply use a pair of light dumbbells and hold them in each hand.
Then, slowly raise your arms (with your palms facing down) up to shoulder height whilst keeping your arms outstretched to your sides.
You’ll feel the side of your shoulders working to strengthen and stabilize the lateral deltoid.
Again, this is a very commonly used muscle for a tennis player so it is important to strengthen it.
Overall, there are a few common causes of shoulder pain from playing tennis.
Shoulder pain is quite common for a lot of tennis players, but you shouldn’t suffer in silence.
It is important to understand what is causing your shoulder pain, how you can treat it and most importantly, how you can take steps to prevent your shoulder pain from returning.
So, be sure to recognise when you are experiencing shoulder pain, particularly if it is acute, and take the necessary steps to stretch, strengthen and stabilize your shoulder joint and the surrounding muscles.
Taking this action could well save you from a long term shoulder injury!