There's a good chance you've heard of pickleball, even if you don't play. This racket-based game is one of the fastest-growing sports nationwide, with 36.5 million people hitting the court each year. In fact, pickleball courts are popping up all over Greater Cincinnati.
Pickleball is easy to learn and a great option for cardiovascular exercise. Regular play can even improve your agility and coordination. But the game is also linked to a growing number of injuries.
If you're a regular player, or even if you only play occasionally, according to Namdar Kazemi, MD, an orthopedic surgeon at The Christ Hospital, you need to know about pickleball-related injuries and how to prevent them.
“Pickleball is a great option for regular exercise, and it's gaining popularity among experienced athletes and novices alike," he says. “As with every sport, injuries are possible. It's important to know how you may get hurt and what you can potentially do to protect yourself. The more you know, the more time you can spend on the court rather than in recovery."
What is pickleball, and how common are injuries?
Pickleball is a mash-up of ping pong, badminton, and tennis – but without any overhead serves. It uses a smaller court than tennis, with wooden rackets slightly larger than ping pong paddles. While younger people enjoy the game, approximately 50% of current players are over 55.
And research shows player age could contribute to the uptick in injuries. People over 55 are more prone to the strains, sprains and fractures doctors often see with pickleball players. In fact, roughly 19,000 pickleball-related injuries occurred in 2017 — and more than 90% happened to players over 50.
Which injuries happen most often?
Dr. Kazemi says pickleball injuries can be acute (happen suddenly) or chronic (lasting more than three months). Acute injuries occur with falls, bending, sudden pivots and quick direction changes. Chronic injuries result from overuse or repetitive motions.
“The injuries we see with pickleball players are very similar to injuries seen with tennis and other racket sports," he says.
But because pickleball is an underhand sport, most injuries affect the lower body — your hips, legs, knees and ankles. So when you play pickleball, you could experience any of these acute lower body injuries:
- Achilles tendon sprain or rupture
- Ankle sprain
- Herniated disk in the lower back
- Knee meniscus tear
- Knee sprain
- Pulled hamstring, quadriceps, adductors, hip flexors and calf muscles
However, shoulder and wrist injuries, such as bruising, sprains and factures, are also possible.
Over time, pickleball players can also develop these chronic injuries:
- Heel contusions (bruises)
- Lateral epicondylitis (tennis elbow)
- Lumbar muscle (lower back) strain
- Plantar fasciitis
- Persistent soreness in the hamstring, quadriceps or groin
- Rotator cuff strain
- Tendinitis (elbow, forearm, shoulder or wrist)
- Wrist tendon strain
You can play pickleball if you have arthritis. But be aware: Side-to-side movements with playing can aggravate arthritis, particularly in your knees.
How can you prevent pickleball injuries?
Fortunately, you can take several steps to help avoid an injury that could sideline you from the game or send you to the doctor. To protect yourself, Dr. Kazemi recommends:
- Getting more cardiovascular exercise: Try for at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity every week.
- Warming up before the game: Try torso twists, arm circles, jumping jacks, lunges and side steps. Even a short jog can prepare your muscles for a match.
- Wearing proper footwear: Tennis shoes (not running shoes) provide more ankle support and a better foundation for sudden changes in direction.
- Wearing an ankle or knee brace: If needed, braces can provide extra stability.
If you are injured, you can treat most minor strains and sprains at home using the RICE method — rest, ice, compression and elevation. However, Dr. Kazemi says you should seek medical attention for pain and discomfort that lingers. Such problems rarely heal on their own and could lead to other complications.
“Injuries can lead to problems that become chronic and more difficult to treat," he says. “For example, appropriate treatment for ankle sprains can prevent future sprains. Treating a chronic Achilles tendon rupture is much more difficult than treating an acute one. If you're injured, talk to your doctor so you don't miss out on your next pickleball match."
Putting off a nagging pickleball injury? You can get it checked out at The Christ Hospital Orthopedic After-Hours Clinic! Walk-ins are welcome Monday – Friday, 5 p.m. – 9 p.m., at The Christ Hospital Joint & Spine Center in Mt. Auburn. Or schedule online to be seen by one of our orthopedic specialists.