One of my massage therapy clients once described an experience she’d had with an orthopedic physician:
He didn’t know about using tennis balls for massage! He asked what helped my back pain, and I told him I always lie on a tennis ball. He looked at me like he was going to refer me to a psychiatrist! How can an orthopedic surgeon not know about the tennis ball thing? Doesn’t everyone know about the tennis ball thing?
A tennis ball is a cheap, handy, portable self-massage tool.
Specifically, you can use it for the self-treatment of “knots” in your muscles, technically known as trigger points. Having too many trigger points chronically is known as myofascial pain syndrome. In this basic article, I serve up (*sad trombone*) some fun tips on how to use a tennis ball — and similar tools — to relieve knots in your muscles. Or at least try without the expense of a massage therapist. (They’re lovely, but they ain’t cheap.)
It’s exactly like foam rolling, but less trendy and more precise. The basic idea of tennis ball massage, or any massage with any kind of ball, is to apply pressure to muscles with it by trapping it between your body and something else: usually the floor, sometimes a wall, or another body part, and a few other creative options like the back of the couch, the bottom of the bathtub, and so on. The point is to use the ball to reach spots that you simply can’t get to with your hands, and every other kind of tool massage is a variation on this theme.
Tennis ball massage is usually the most useful in the muscles of the back and the hips: places where you can actually lie down on the tennis ball, pinching it between your body and the floor or wall. Many other locations are awkward (especially for beginners), and you may find it difficult or impossible to apply pressure effectively.
The goal of tennis ball massage is to achieve a “release” by applying just the right amount of pressure: enough to do some good, but not enough to irritate your nervous system. (Although it’s quite safe, massage is not harmless.) The sensation should be clear and strong and satisfying, what we call “good pain.” If you are wincing or gritting your teeth, you need to be more gentle.
You need to be able to relax.
Once you have adjusted yourself to achieve the right pressure, relax as much as possible and wait for the sensation to fade to about eighty percent of the original intensity. This is the “release” — a change in the physiological state of the tissues, or a “melting” of the knot. This can take anywhere from ten seconds to several minutes. I’ll briefly explain the (messy) biology of this below, and there’s much more information elsewhere on the site for the curious.
Other simple, cheap balls work, too! Lacrosse balls are less common and much firmer, but they have a great rubbery texture that makes them easy to work with, and less prone to slipping. Squash balls are also nice and “sticky,” but much smaller and more precise.
Your dog’s “ball” might be useful: the a Kong dog toy, with it’s pyramidal shape, a hardness that varies depending on how you use it, can be much better than a tennis ball for some areas.
There are, of course, countless commercial self-massage tools: balls of every description, sticks and widgets, rollers and thumpers, wooden thumbs, and on and on.
I even know a therapist who collects smooth river rocks — seriously —and gives them away to patients as self-massage tools. It’s a nice idea. Although hard as rock, too hard for many patients, they’re just right for certain self-massage challenges. For instance, they might be ideal for firm “scraping” of the muscles of the forearm — a muscle group which can really take a beating in some people.
Many of these tools are handy and fun, but one of the most important idea’s in this article is that you really don’t need to go out of your way to buy anything special: most people already have a tennis ball around, and it really is one of the most versatile self-massage tools in the world.
The guidelines in this article for self-treatment apply more or less regardless of what tool you use.
Tennis ball massage is usually the most effective in the muscles of the back and the hips. Many other locations are awkward (especially for beginners), and you may find it difficult or impossible to apply consistent pressure.
Lie down on a tennis ball, placing it in approximately the right location. You do not have to be precise. “Explore” by moving slowly and gently, until you’ve got just the right spot.The sensation should be clear and strong and satisfying; it should have a relieving, welcome quality — this is what we call “good pain.”
See the “Perfect Spots” series of articles for several highly recommended places for massage.
Trigger point massage often provides only temporary relief. Here are some basic tips and tricks to help make it last as long as possible:
A knot or trigger point is a tiny spasm… maybe. It’s just a theory. The nerve that controls the muscle may be firing too quickly, and the tissue is full of (irritating) waste molecules produced by the “revving” tissue. Or it could be something else altogether. Pain is surprisingly mysterious.
It’s also a scientific unknown if applying pressure is actually an effective treatment for trigger points. It may be more of a sensory distraction than an actual “cure.” Or it may have a biological effect on the trigger point. Two common ideas are that the pressure creates a small, local stretch that resolves the spasm just like stretching to relieve a larger spasm, and/or the pressure literally squeezes stagnant tissue fluids out of the area.
Regardless, it certainly feels good, and many people seem to experience profound relief from focussed massage pressure. And it’s very cheap and safe to experiment with (as long as you don’t get carried away pressing on vulnerable anatomy).
This article is a small excerpt from PainScience.com’s large, advanced myofascial pain syndrome tutorial, which goes into waaaay more detail: not just more about tennis ball and other tools for self-massage, but every other kind of self-treatment for trigger points you can imagine, how to troubleshoot every kind of treatment challenge — mistakes that beginners tend to make, how to deal with unusually stubborn trigger points, what to do for trigger points that are ‘stuck’ with adhesions and contractures, and explanations for why stretching sometimes works really well for trigger points and sometimes not at all, and much, much more.
I am a science writer, former massage therapist, and assistant editor of ScienceBasedMedicine.org. I have had my share of injuries and pain challenges as a runner and ultimate player. My wife and I live in downtown Vancouver, Canada. See my full bio and qualifications, or my blog, Writerly. You might run into me on Facebook and Google, but mostly Twitter.
May 7, 2016 — Added suggestions about other kinds of balls that are suitable for self-massage. General editing. Modernization of information about trigger points.