Picture this: you are playing a highly-competitive game of tennis with a friend when you stop quickly and then accelerate to reach a shot. That’s when you hear a pop in your calf muscle and feel a sharp burning pain.
It’s almost like someone shot you in the back of the leg.
You limp off the court and try to stretch. It hurts too bad. In fact, you have to sit and wait until the pain goes away before you can hobble out to your car.
What Is Tennis Leg?
What you’ve just experienced is known as “tennis leg,” which is a tear of the medial head of the gastrocnemius–or the calf muscle. It is not a tear of the Achilles and it generally does not need surgery.
Sports medicine used to think tennis leg was due to a rupture of the small muscle in the back of your knee. Not true. It actually involves a tear of the tendon and muscle portion of your calf. This gastrocnemius muscle is the most superficial muscle of the calf, making it prone to injury, especially in older athletes, and you don’t have to play racquet sports like tennis to suffer from tennis leg.
However, the combination of superior foot traction you get from high-performance footwear on the surface of a tennis court leads to abrupt and sudden changes of direction, putting stress on the gastrocnemius and tearing if the muscle stretches too far.
Because they’re typically experiencing initial stages of muscle atrophy and degeneration, middle-age athletes are most prone to tennis leg.
Furthermore, these athletes may have even been highly-competitive players growing up, all the way through college in some cases. But when they get a job their activity level takes a dip. The period of inactivity that follows and the natural atrophy of muscles everyone goes through with aging predisposes his or her muscles for an injury.
Tennis Leg Signs and Symptoms
Athletes who are suffering from tennis leg often report a feeling of being shot in the leg. A bruise develops along with some swelling. The area of the injury is tender to touch and the athlete usually can’t walk on it. If they do walk, they’ll walk on the toes to prevent the ankle from bending upward, which would stretch the calf and cause more pain.
Tennis Leg Treatment
The sooner you treat the injury, the better. Apply ice and elevate the leg above the heart. You should also use crutches until you your doctor can perform a sports medicine examination. .
Tennis leg is not an injury that should require surgery–whether exploratory or for repair. In fact, if the injury is properly treated you’ll eventually be able to return to active play within four to six weeks.
The best way to prevent tennis leg is to sufficiently warm up before playing. Ten minutes of some kind of cardio work to get your blood flowing followed by ten minutes of stretching. When you feel loose, you can start to play competitively. But not any sooner.
Dr. Rick Lehman is a distinguished orthopedic surgeon in St. Louis, Missouri and an articular cartilage reconstruction pioneer He owns U. S. Sports Medicine in Kirkwood, MO, and LehmanHealth. Learn more about Dr. Rick.