24 August 2018

Blisters: Don’t burst the bubble

For a small complaint, blisters cause big problems, especially for tennis players. So how exactly are they caused and what can you do to prevent them?

Blisters can be agony. One of our players recently had to withdraw from a round because of a recurring blister on her racket hand. Rafa Nadal has suffered from the same problem, particuarly during the 2014 Australian Open. But if hands hurt, athletes' feet can be a real source of trouble. A badly blistered foot forced Chung Hyeon to hobble away from his match against Federer in the Australian Open this year, and Marin Cilic was suffering from painful blisters when he lost in the Wimbledon final in 2017. Asked recently how to prevent blisters, he said simply, “I have no idea.”

Cilic may have had a point. Though everyone knows what a blister is, there is some disagreement about how it got there. Thorlo, the sport sock specialist, says "the management of moisture or foot perspiration is the critical element", and says its socks have been clinically shown to reduce blisters. 

But Rebecca Rushton, an Australian podiatrist who has made blister-prevention and treatment her speciality, says blisters have been misunderstood. Forget heat, moisture and friction, she says. Rather, think shear. Shear is what happens when the skin is stretched in the opposite direction to the bone underneath. When this action is repeated and excessive, it causes a micro tear which within two hours fills with fluid and up pops a blister. She demonstrates what she means in the video below. Friction and pressure exacerbate the problem.


To prevent blisters, different approaches may work for different people but suggestions include foot powder between the toes, Vaseline on the inside of your socks (targeting the vulnerable areas only) to reduce friction, using tape, which can distribute shear over a wider area (though it will not prevent them entirely as our LTL player discovered) and Thorlos padded socks which are sold on our site here.

As for treatment, the NHS says blisters should heal on their own within a week but recommends an icepack to reduce pain and definitely no blister-bursting which can lead to infection. Rushton recommends ‘island dressings’ or ‘donut pads’ so the blister is no longer exposed to pressure and to the problems that caused it in the first place, and if it is burst or ‘deroofed’, antiseptic.