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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Wednesday, February 9, 2005

Tennis-ball therapy

By Paula Rath
Advertiser Staff Writer

Tightness in the trapezius. Soreness in the rhomboids. Locked-up muscles in the low back. Ghastly aches in the gluteals.

Get help for these five areas

These are just five of the common problem areas that can benefit from tennis-ball trigger-point massage. Pressure can be applied while lying down on the balls, below, or standing up.

Easing aching feet

A tennis ball placed under the heel, arch or ball of the foot, with all the weight placed on the ball, can ease an aching foot. Be sure to balance out this self-massage by standing with the ball under the other foot as well. Massage one foot at a time with the balls.

Greg Taylor • The Honolulu Advertiser

One month into a New Year's resolution-inspired exercise program and, yikes, it's a pain in the neck. Or shoulder. Or back ...

While a nice, deep-tissue massage usually takes care of trigger points and muscle aches, it's a sad reality that few folks can afford to go to a massage therapist every time a trigger point causes tightness.

What to do?

We asked a woman in the know, Lisa Ortega Robertson, owner of On Balance, a Kailua Pilates studio, what she does when the aches of over-exercise nag at her or her Pilates clients.

Robertson has found an easy, inexpensive solution: trigger-point self-massage with a tennis ball.

Just ask a tennis-playing friend for a reject; a used tennis ball is best, as it has more give.

Robertson learned of the technique while a dance major at California State University-Fullerton. "All the dancers carried a tennis ball in their dance bag because they always had tight, overworked muscles," Robertson explained. "A tennis ball was a dance bag necessity."

Robertson uses tennis-ball therapy for her clients when they arrive for a Pilates session with a tight muscle that needs releasing. She said it is also helpful for those who "Wake up with a crick in their neck as if a little gremlin came while they were sleeping. It's the greatest tool to massage it out before it manifests into a bigger problem. It's really saved me many times over the years."

The tennis ball also has helped her to relieve the low- back tightness associated with menstrual cramps, scoliosis and pregnancy.

Post-exercise is another practical application. Runners, weight lifters and other athletes often experience low-back tightness after a heavy workout, and the tennis ball, when properly applied, can help.

Men can also irritate their gluteal muscles simply by sitting for too long on a thick wallet.

"So many people live with these trigger-point pains. We tend to ignore them or just attribute them to bad posture or age or overweight. But they're not normal and they need to be dealt with," Robertson emphasized.

This self-administered therapy is not meant for injured, inflamed or acutely painful muscles. Those might be better treated with an ice pack or a doctor visit.

It can be effective, however, in bringing blood to an irritated area to loosen up tight muscles.

Find a soft floor


• Never put the ball directly on the spine or any bone.

• Avoid the neck area.

• If you feel a shooting pain, stop. A deep massage over the ball is OK, but sharp pain is not.

• If you feel any numbness or tingling in your legs or arms, reposition the ball, as you may have placed it on a nerve.

• If you apply the ball to one side, balance it out by applying equal pressure, for the same amount of time, to the opposite side.

• While some tough types may prefer to use golf balls or baseballs, Robertson does not recommend them, as the hardness factor can bruise the tissue and further irritate the area.

It's important to lie on a carpeted floor or an exercise mat in a warm area. Cold drafts can aggravate trigger points.

When dressing, try to avoid bulky seams that may irritate the skin.

The technique is simple.

Lying on the floor, position the ball near where you think the trigger point or sensitive area is most acute. You will probably need to increase or decrease the pressure by slowly and gradually rolling around on the ball to find the exact spot.

A deep massage is what you're after. However, if a trigger point becomes more painful or the ball causes you to tighten your muscles because of increased discomfort, ease off that spot.

Once you find the trigger point, hold the position for at least three deep breaths, then ease off. Repeat until the trigger point is released and pain decreases or disappears.

After putting pressure on one side, try lying still for a few seconds or minutes to feel how the worked side has improved before placing the ball on the other side.

"The goal is to feel that your back can imprint into the floor, or like you are imprinting your back into a big slab of clay," Robertson explained.

If you are in an office or other environment where lying on the floor is not an option, it's also possible to use the tennis ball to massage trigger points by leaning against a wall or sitting in a chair.

It may take some shifting and maneuvering to get the ball in the most beneficial position. Here are some ideas for finding the spot:

  • When searching for that common trouble spot, the trigger point around the rhomboid area (between the shoulder blade and spine), try protracting and retracting the shoulder blade by reaching toward the ceiling until you feel that "wing" area in your back wrap around the ball.
  • To add pressure to a spot in the upper back, try lifting your back into a "bridge." With knees bent, lift the hips to an angle of about 45 degrees.
  • To get extra pressure on the trapezius, stretch your arm overhead on the floor.
  • For the lumbar area (on the side opposite of the belly button), pressure can be added by bringing the knee into the chest on the same side where the ball is placed and stirring the knee around with the hand.
  • There are many areas around the gluteus that can be irritated by walking, climbing stairs and even swimming.

Easing these muscles may also lessen the pain of sciatica. To get deep with the tennis ball, drop the leg on the ball side into a frog leg shape and roll around until you find the trigger point.

And now ... the feet

Tennis-ball trigger-point therapy can be helpful for aching feet as well. It can promote circulation and flexibility in those hard-working extremities.

If the irritation is in the ball of the foot, step on the ball and curl the toes as far as possible over the ball.

For aching arches, simply stand with feet shoulder-width apart and step on the ball, rolling it around until you find the toughest spot, then put all your weight onto it. Don't forget to breathe deeply.

The heel can also be a sore point. If using the ball on your heel, be sure to balance it all out by putting it under both heels — one heel at a time, of course. A sore heel often is a symptom of a heel spur, a medical condition that requires a physician's care. It could be aggravated with any pressure, such as tennis-ball trigger-point therapy.

Try applying pressure to one foot, then standing firm on both feet to compare. You will probably find that the worked foot feels more flexible and connected to the floor.

Tennis-ball trigger-point massage is most effective when followed up with gentle stretching. It often has the added benefit of increasing range of motion and making your strength training more effective.

Reach Paula Rath at 525-5464 or prath@honoluluadvertiser.com.