“Tennis Leg”

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Feel like you’ve been shot in the leg with a BB gun? Running Doc says it’s the useless“plantaris muscle”

Not to worry: That sharp pain in the back of your leg could be caused by the useless plantaris muscle


Monday, July 28, 2014, 7:00 AM



Feel like you’ve been hit in the leg with a BB gun, or a hard tennis serve? The Running Doc says is just the useless plantaris muscle.

Dear Running Doc:

Playing racquetball on the courts one day last week, I suddenly felt a sharp pain in my left calf, like I’d been shot with a BB gun or something. I turned around, but no one was behind me. My local sports medicine doctor tells me the pain happened when I tore something called my plantaris muscle. I’ve never heard of it. Can you fill me in? Steve A., Ridgewood, NJ.

“Popped in the leg with a BB gun” is what it feels like to most people. Or, on the tennis courts, as though you’ve been stung in the leg with a wild serve. But it always turns out there are no BB guns or errant tennis balls anywhere near your calf, no excuse at all for it to start swelling, and to eventually turn black and blue. Up until recently, you would hobble off to a doctor and learn — incorrectly – -that you had undoubtedly torn one of the major muscles in the area, probably requiring a long period of complete rest. Now, we know better.

That’s because a wispy, pencil-like muscle that runs down the middle of your lower leg is no longer a riddle to medical people.

Called the “freshman nerve,” since first-year medical students habitually mistake it for that, it’s the plantaris muscle-tendon complex, like the appendix, one of evolution’s leftovers. Once upon a time, the muscle might have helped you point your toe downward, but no more. The ones around it have taken over the job.

However it’s still all connected up as if it had something to do, though all it does is grow gradually more and more brittle through the years until that day on the court when your game comes to a sudden halt when what feels like the worst pain of your life grips your calf. Sometimes called “tennis leg,” plantaris tendon rupture is more poetically referred to as “The disease of the aging athlete,” because it’s virtually unheard of in people under 40.

For years, even many sports medicine physicians dismissed plantaris rupture as a myth, since no cases had ever been surgically proven. But just a few years ago, researchers at the University of Miami published a paper confirming that the detailed investigation made possible by magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) had finally found two confirmed cases of plantaris tendon rupture. Too late for all those athletes who were treated for more serious conditions. Not too late for you.

The good news is, the two ends of the rupture will shrivel up and go away — in a couple of weeks with a little physical therapy and warm water soaks to dissolved caked-up blood, a little longer without — and you’ll never know the difference. The bad news? One more leg to go.


Lewis G. Maharam, MD, is one of the world’s most extensively credentialed and well-known sports health experts. Better known as Running Doc™, Maharam is author of Running Doc’s Guide to Healthy Running and past medical director of the NYC Marathon and Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon series . He is medical director of the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society’s Team in Training program. He is also past president of the New York Chapter of the American College of Sports Medicine. Learn more at runningdoc.com.

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