- Learn about the common causes of chronic pain.
- Learn how self-massage can be used to ease chronic pain.
- Learn some quick and effective self-massage strategies that fitness professionals can teach their clients to help them eliminate their own aches and pains.
People generally want quick and easy solutions to their problems and your training clients are no exception. Those with a desire to lose weight quickly may take diet pills, others might utilize steroids to help them put on muscle, and clients with chronic aches and pains may turn to over-the-counter and/or prescription pain medications to help alleviate their symptoms. The undeniable fact about these drug-based, quick-fix solutions is that (for the most part) they work. However, these strategies have multiple negative side effects and do little to address underlying issues which prevent clients from maintaining success without the use of these potentially dangerous drugs.
Helping Our Clients Succeed
As health and fitness professionals, we have the unique opportunity to educate, empower and motivate our clients to address the underlying causes of their problems so they can learn how to rely on their own talents to reach their goals (American Council on Exercise, 2010). However, this idealistic vision requires a lot of hard work and is sometimes a tough sell to clients. Our clients are real people, with real problems and it can be challenging helping them –particularly those who experience aches and pains– to stick to their programs long enough to make long-term lifestyle changes. So how can we provide clients in pain with quick and easy solutions that have no negative side effects, still address the underlying causes, while also empowering, educating and motivating them to succeed in reaching their goals?
Causes of Pain
The first step is to understand what typically causes pain. One of the biggest causes is due to imbalances in, and compensations of, the musculoskeletal system (Kendall, 2005). To put it simply, people experience aches and pains due to either muscles not working correctly (muscular compensations) or bones being out of alignment (skeletal compensations). Since muscles are attached to bones, these two problems go hand-in-hand. For example, if muscles are not doing their job(s) correctly due to postural imbalances, athletic overuse and/or neurological disorders, they can pull the skeleton out of alignment. Alternatively, if the skeleton is out of alignment due to trauma/injury, congenital deformities and/or aging, muscle function can be adversely affected.
As personal trainers and corrective exercise specialists it is beyond our scope of practice to try to align someone’s bones. However, it is well within our scope and expertise to utilize postural assessments to uncover skeletal imbalances that can then direct us to muscles that may not be working correctly. For example, if an assessment reveals that a client has excessive lumbar lordosis (and resultant back pain), we can focus our attention and corrective exercise strategies toward restoring optimal function to muscles in that area that may have been adversely affected by that imbalance (such as the hip flexors, lumbar erectors, hip rotators, etc.) (McGill, 2002).
A Solution for Pain
Once you understand what is causing a person’s musculoskeletal pain, you can then use massage solutions to address the problem (Rolf, 1989). For approximately 5,000 years, people around the world have been using some form of massage to promote health, relieve tension, and reduce pain. Massage is thought to have originated around 2,500 to 3,000 B.C., as documented in early Chinese medical texts and in ancient Egyptian tomb paintings. Massage also has documented roots in traditional Indian medicine dating as far back as 1,500 B.C. The ancient Greeks and Romans also recognized the therapeutic qualities of massage and incorporated it into their daily health regimens. Even Julius Caesar used massage to help relieve pain! It wasn’t until the mid-1800s that the word “massage” gained acceptance in the Western medical community. Since then, massage has become widely used around the world in all kinds of settings—from luxurious spas to hospitals. People from all walks of life take advantage of the therapeutic benefits of massage—from weekend warriors to professional athletes and even the President of the United States. (Unsealed medical records reveal that President John F. Kennedy used massage techniques to help alleviate the unbearable back pain he suffered during his political career) (McCloskey, 2002). One of the main reasons why massage has become so popular is simple: it works. Here are just a few of the many ways massage eases pain:
- Increases circulation—enables oxygen and other nutrients to reach vital muscles, tissues, and organs.
- Increases joint flexibility—prepares the joints for the greater range of movement and increased load that accompany more dynamic activities, such as exercising or playing sports.
- Reduces scar tissue and adhesions—improves the elasticity of muscles and other soft tissues.
- Eliminates stored tension in muscles—allows muscles to relax.
- Releases endorphins—floods the body with these neurotransmitters that act as natural painkillers.
- Reduces inflammation—decreases production of compounds called cytokines, which play a role in decreasing inflammation.
- Stimulates muscle repair—increases activity in mitochondria, the powerhouses in cells that are involved in cell repair.
If massage is so effective then, why don’t you just tell your clients to head to the nearest massage therapist to cure their pain? There are many reasons. Mainly, you’d like to keep your clients, right? Also, some people don’t like others touching them, some massage therapists aren’t well-trained and can sometimes do more harm than good, and frankly, it’s expensive and time consuming to get a professional massage on a regular basis.
A Quick and Easy Fix for Pain
Fortunately, you can use the results of your postural assessment to direct your client(s) to perform self-massage techniques using a tennis ball on those areas that have muscular imbalances. This way they can get all the amazing benefits of massage without any of the drawbacks. Using a tennis ball for self-massage is an excellent quick-fix solution to chronic pain because:
- Tennis ball massage techniques don’t require any fancy equipment (i.e., a tennis ball cost less than a dollar).
- Clients can use their tennis ball techniques to help relieve pain anywhere, at any time, and with very little space.
- Individuals control the pressure of the massage and can get results immediately. They also experience long-term benefits because you have provided them with an easy strategy they can do on a regular basis.
- By using the tennis ball techniques clients are addressing the underlying causes of their musculoskeletal pain.
- Clients will enjoy better moods because they are releasing stress, muscle tension and improving their posture.
- Clients will experience improved health as they release toxins from their body.
- Clients will recover more quickly from exercise.
- Most importantly, tennis ball massage techniques are easy to master and put your clients in total control of their own pain relief.
Eliminating barriers to client success with tennis ball massage techniques is simple. Carry a few tennis balls around in your bag and give them to clients when they have agreed to doing the tennis ball techniques for homework. This way they won’t have to spend an extra hour of their day searching for a tennis ball. (Giving a tennis ball to your client will also make them more likely to do the exercises and benefit as a result.) As they begin to feel better, clients will likely tell friends and family about who taught them these amazing tennis ball techniques. As such, your small investment in tennis balls will prove invaluable with the resultant word-of-mouth referrals you receive.
When teaching the techniques, to take a picture of the client doing the exercise(s) and email it to them so they know exactly what to do on their own. As you are teaching, ask for input about what key points the client needs to remember and write those down to accompany the picture, or put them in an email with the photos. You can also ask your clients what they want to call the tennis ball technique you have taught them to further personalize each exercise. This ensures clients will be more likely to adhere to doing them on a regular basis.
Sample Tennis Ball Techniques
Below are three quick and easy tennis ball techniques to help your clients get started in alleviating their aches and pains:
Tennis Ball Under Calf
Most people have a forward head posture. In short, this means that their bodyweight is always tipping toward the front of their feet. As a result, the foot and ankle must push down (i.e., plantar-flex) to stop the whole body toppling forward. Over time, this can cause very tight calf muscles and restrictions to the muscles and fascia of this area. Using a tennis ball to self-massage the calves is a great way to help improve foot and ankle function and align the rest of the body.
Figure 1. Tennis Ball Technique Under Calf
- Instructions: Sit with your back against the wall or couch. Place a tennis ball (or a harder ball like a baseball if you need more pressure) under the calf. Raise the ball up slightly by placing it on top of a book to take pressure off the knee. Hold each sore spot you find for 20-30 seconds and then move the ball to another spot. Perform technique on each calf.
Tennis Ball On Glute
There are many muscles in the gluteal complex that help control leg, pelvis, hip and spine motion. Keeping these muscles supple and healthy with this tennis ball technique can help alleviate knee, hip and back pain.
Figure 2. Tennis Ball Technique On Glute
- Instructions: Lay on the floor with your knees bent and your head resting on a pillow. Place a tennis ball under one side of your buttocks. Find a sore spot and hold to the release tension then scoot your body to move the ball gently to another spot. Hold for 20-30 seconds on each sore spot. Perform technique on both sides.
Tennis Ball Around Shoulder Blade
Sitting at the computer all day with your upper back hunched and your shoulders rounded forward can lead to both muscular and skeletal imbalances in your upper back, neck and shoulders. This exercise is a great self-massage technique designed to rejuvenate and regenerate the muscles of those areas.
Figure 3. Tennis Ball Technique Around Shoulder Blade
- Instructions Lay on the floor with your knees bent and your head resting on a pillow. Pull one arm across your chest and place a tennis ball under the shoulder blade of that arm. Find a sore spot and hold to the release tension then move the ball gently to another spot. Hold for 20-30 seconds on each sore spot. Perform technique on both sides. Note: Do not roll around vigorously on the ball when performing this exercise.
- American Council on Exercise. 2010. ACE Personal Trainer Manual (Fourth Edition). San Diego: American Council on Exercise.
- Kendall, F.P. et al. 2005. Muscles Testing and Function with Posture and Pain (5th ed.). Baltimore, MD.: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins.
- McCloskey, Erin. 2002.The International Journal of Applied Kinesiology and Kinesiologic Medicine. Issue No. 13.
- McGill, Stuart. 2002. Low Back Disorders: Evidence Based Prevention and Rehabilitation. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.
- Price, J. (in press). The Amazing Tennis Ball Back Pain Cure. San Diego, CA: The Biomechanics Books.
- Rolf, I. P. 1989. Rolfing: Reestablishing the Natural Alignment and Structural Integration of the Human Body for Vitality and Well-Being (revised edition). Rochester, VT: Healing Arts Press.