Serena Williams and the curse of tennis shoulder

After being forced to pull out of yet another tournament last month, questions are being raised over the future of tennis star Serena William’s career. By William’s standards, 2016 has been a disappointing year as a persistent shoulder injury affected her performance in the Rio Olympics and the US Open. In fact, her loss in the semi-finals of the latter competition set back her shot at breaking the record of 22 Grand Slam Titles which she currently shares with Steffi Graf.

Serena Williams and tennis shoulderHaving recently turned 35, will her shoulder affect her chances of ever beating this record? As she has recently commented, she is “tired of playing tournaments unhealthy and taking losses I would never lose”. Currently, the world number two tennis player in the world, Williams is now following doctor’s orders to rest the shoulder to ensure she can play next year.

Tennis players are certainly no stranger to shoulder injuries. Commonly dubbed ‘Tennis Shoulder’, injuries are caused by repetitive stress to the shoulder joint.

What is tennis shoulder?

Tennis shoulder is a term relating to a range of shoulder conditions. Strokes like the overhead smash, serve and high forehand can place significant stress on the shoulder joints over time, causing them to become inflamed and unstable.
The most common tennis shoulder injuries include:

Shoulder bursitis/impingement

The most common tennis shoulder injury, shoulder bursitis develops when the small sac of fluid known as the bursa becomes inflamed. Its sole purpose is to reduce friction between the bone and the tissue and, when inflamed, it can cause severe pain. In serious cases, the bursa could become impinged between the bone and the muscle, resulting in pain whenever the arm is lifted.

Shoulder impingement can also be diagnosed when the supraspinatus tendon is aggravated or pinched. There are two main types of shoulder impingement including subacromial and internal impingement.

This type of tennis shoulder tends to be caused by high forehands and excessive serves.

Shoulder instability

Over time, the joint of the shoulder can loosen, leading to instability. There are varying degrees of shoulder instability that can occur, with complete dislocation being the most severe. It can also go on to develop into arthritis if it remains untreated.

In tennis, strokes that cause repetitive shoulder motions can cause the joint capsule to stretch and loosen. This in turn causes the muscles of the shoulder to weaken and the humerus ball will start to slip. This is when pain in the shoulder will develop.

Rotator cuff tear

Tears to the rotator cuff can develop after a single, traumatic injury or gradually develop over time. Excess overhead activity is a leading cause of this type of injury, resulting in the arm becoming weaker and pain developing around the joint. In some cases, surgery will be required to repair the tear, resulting in a significant recovery time.

Older players experience more severe tennis injuries

The most severe tennis shoulder injuries are typically found in older athletes due to a more advanced play level. Younger players will typically develop milder injuries. However, the problem comes when these mild injuries are not treated correctly. If left untreated, the injury will usually worsen and potentially threaten a player’s career.

Though prevention isn’t always possible, there are things you can do to limit your chance of developing tennis shoulder.

Proper technique during training, along with rotator strengthening exercises can help significantly. Stretching prior to a match is also recommended.

Overall, tennis shoulder is a common issue experienced by players at all levels. The key to minimising the amount of downtime required is to ensure you seek treatment as soon as possible.