The term tennis elbow is widely known because it’s a common malady associated with tennis (and more recently, pickleball), primarily due to the use of a back-hand stroke. For those who play racquet sports, there’s another common orthopedic condition that includes the word tennis: tennis leg.
The condition is characterized by a popping noise in the calf during a movement associated with the leg pushing off during a jump, sprint, or sudden change of direction followed by a sharp, burning sensation that makes it difficult to bear weight on the leg. Though it may not initially be observed, tennis leg can lead to superficial bruising, swelling, limitations in knee and ankle range of motion, and increased calf pain at the end-range of ankle dorsiflexion (bringing the toes toward the nose) and with manual palpation. It’s important to note that like tennis elbow, tennis leg is not just a sport-related injury but can also occur in non-athletes.
If you hadn’t heard the term before, you may be surprised to discover it was first clinically described way back in 1883! The condition was initially attributed to rupture of the plantaris muscle tendon in the calf region of the lower leg. However, more recent studies using ultrasound and MRI have shown that in nearly all cases, tennis leg is the result of injury to the gastrocnemius and/or soleus muscles in the calf. In one study, researchers evaluated MRIs of 58 patients with tennis leg and observed that edema or disruption of the medial head of the gastrocnemius at the muscle-tendon junction in 55 cases (90.2%); fluid collection between the medial head of the gastrocnemius and soleus in 44 cases (72.1%); injury to the soleus muscle (which is deeper to the gastrocnemius) in 22 (36.1%) of the cases; and plantaris muscle disruption in 7 cases (11.5%). In rare cases, tennis leg may be due to deep venous thrombosis posing as a muscle injury, which may require prompt medical attention.
Treatment generally follows the PRICE (Protect, Rest, Ice, Compress, Elevate) protocol and may include the use of a boot, modalities to reduce inflammation and promote healing (like laser or pulsed magnetic field), passive range of ankle/knee motion within pain boundaries, and manual therapies to address any musculoskeletal disorders in adjacent parts of the body that may have preceded and contributed to the injury.