Healthy Body

Using a Tennis Ball To Massage Your Soles Doesn’t Just Help With Foot Pain—It Helps Your Back, Too

Photo: Getty Images/ Antonio_Diaz

Besides playing an actual game of tennis with them, tennis balls are handy to have on hand for various reasons, particularly for pain relief. Have back pain that doesn't let you sleep? A tennis ball has your back, literally. Need some relief from knots and muscle aches while traveling? Don't forget to pack a tennis ball in your carry-on. And if you've spent all day on your feet and your tootsies are screaming for some TLC, a tennis ball foot massage will do the trick. 

According to Daryl Thuroff, DACM, LAc, LMT, an acupuncturist, herbalist, and massage therapist, giving yourself compression foot massages using a tennis ball can help relieve foot pain of many types, ranging from discomfort after wearing high heels to pains caused by working on your feet all day. Add in the relaxation component of tennis ball foot massages, and you're in for a real treat.

Benefits of a tennis ball foot massage

Massaging your feet with a tennis ball offers many perks, including stress reduction, reduced foot pain, and it support organs in the body as they access reflexology zones, Dr. Thuroff says. Podiatrist Chanel Houston Perkins, DPM, adds that these massages can also help release tension, improve circulation, strengthen the feet, and help loosen foot ligaments, reducing the likelihood of injury. 

And, more good news: Using a tennis ball to massage your feet also helps with back pain. Dr. Thuroff explains there are acupressure and reflexology points on the feet that represent the back. "The feet, hands, and ears are all considered microcosms of the macrocosm (the body)," she says. "This is how they are connected." Dr. Perkins expands on this, adding that we have nerve roots that originate in the lower back and branch out until they reach the feet. In other words, it’s all connected. 

How to use a tennis ball to relieve foot pain

The key with tennis ball massages is to manage the pressure to ensure it's restorative, Dr. Thuroff says. Meaning don't overdo it with pressure, as that can make things worse, which isn't the goal. Also, don't forget to breathe. "I incorporate breathing prompts with any massage work I do as it is helpful to oxygenate the body and facilitate optimal healing," she says. 

If you're hoping to relieve stress and tension due to repetitive use (for instance, if you're on your feet for long periods for work), Dr. Thuroff suggests doing these exercises daily (morning and evening) for the best results.

1. Rolling massage

The rolling massage is the most common way you can use a tennis ball to massage your feet, Dr. Perkins says. Sit in a chair, keeping your back straight and the tennis ball on the ground. Place your bare foot on top of the ball and slowly and gently roll the center of your foot over the tennis ball. Specifically, Dr. Perkins recommends rolling the ball on areas of concern as needed. 

Alternatively for an overall foot massage, Dr. Thuroff suggests starting at the hindfoot (heel/ankle). "Find the tender spot on the big toe side, closer to the arch," she says. "This point may be especially helpful for plantar fasciitis." Then rock back and forth over the ball 10 times and roll around the tender point with small circles 10 times. Repeat on any tender areas in the midfoot (arch) or forefoot (toes and area before the arch).

2. Trigger point massage

To really get the areas that are causing discomfort, Dr. Perkins recommends a trigger point foot massage. Sit in a chair with the tennis ball underneath your foot. Rather than rolling the ball as you did during the rolling massage, press your foot down to apply pressure to one spot at a time for 15 seconds. "Use your body weight (not too much) to increase pressure as needed, comparable to a deep foot massage one would accomplish manually," Dr. Perkins says. 

3. Toe stretch

You can also use a tennis ball to give your toes a good stretch. To do so, Dr. Perkins instructs placing the tennis ball against a wall and then positioning your heel on the floor in front of it with your toes flexed against it. Then slowly lean towards the wall, gently adding pressure to your toes against the tennis ball. Hold for a few seconds, then release and repeat as needed. 

4. Ball squeeze

If the inside of the foot (aka the side the big toe is on) is the area that's causing discomfort, Dr. Thuroff recommends this squeezing technique in particular. Sitting down in a chair with the tennis ball on the ground, bring the ball between your feet at the arches. Then squeeze your feet together around the tennis ball for 3-5 seconds. "Make sure you are breathing in while squeezing and exhaling while releasing," she says. Repeat 3–5 times. 

Tennis ball foot massage precautions

Tennis ball foot massages are not recommended for everyone. Dr. Perkins advises avoiding this technique if you have a diagnosed rupture of a ligament or muscle tendon in the foot, a suspected foot fracture, or a dislocated joint that hasn't been properly treated. 

Dr. Thuroff also recommends caution for people with inflammatory conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis or gout, feet infections, and acute foot injuries, as the massage may exacerbate the situation rather than resolve it. And also, be cautious during early pregnancy. "There are acupressure points and reflexology zones that may be representative of reproductive organs where we do not want to do deep, moving work," she says. "In cases like these, it is best to seek massage and/or reflexology from a licensed/certified professional with perinatal massage experience."

As always, when in doubt, check with your medical provider before trying new massage techniques. 

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