These Are the Top 5 Pickleball Injuries, Says an Orthopedic Surgeon
Pickleball is the fastest-growing sport in the US, gaining popularity among all ages. Pickleball may be all fun and games, but it's not injury-free. Here are three proactive ways to prevent pickleball injuries.
According to the Sports & Fitness Industry Association (SIFA)’s 2023 Topline Participation Report, pickleball is the fastest-growing sport in the US, with pickle ball participation having increased 159% since 2019. Unlike many sports, pickleball has proven especially popular among older people, which makes sense as the sport is less strenuous than other racket sports, like tennis.
But just because it’s less intense than some other sports doesn’t mean that playing pickleball can’t cause injuries. The Healthy @Reader’s Digest caught up with Miami-based orthopedic surgeon Alejandro Badia, M.D, F.A.C.S., who is the past president of the International Society for Sport Traumatology. Dr. Badia shares the most common types of pickleball-associated injuries, how to prevent them, and the number-one action to take if you should happen to sustain one.
What the most common pickleball-related injuries?
Dr. Badia says most of the injuries associated with playing pickleball involve the lower extremities, like the foot, ankle, knee and hip. “Ankle sprains are very common,” Dr. Badia says, “as are knee injuries, which are often influenced by previous knee injuries or degenerative joint conditions, such as early arthritis or degenerative meniscal or cartilage tears.”
Dr. Badia adds that muscle strains, like a hamstring or calf strain, are also very common in pickleball players. As one example, a patient even ruptured their Achilles tendon. (Ouch!) Pickleball can also cause injuries in the upper extremities—in particular the rotator cuff of the shoulder, the wrist, and the elbow.
What aspects of pickleball increase your risk of injury?
Dr. Badia says a lot of the injuries linked to playing pickleball are also commonly associated with other sports or activities, but that pickleball tends to have a more frenetic pace than some activities. The intense cutting back-and-forth motions of pickleball can also wake up previous joint, bone, or muscle injuries.
Dr. Badia further explains that many pickleball players (in particular older or out-of-shape people) are not used to doing the type of explosive motions pickleball demands when they start playing. This can make injury more likely.
3 ways to prevent pickleball injuries
Dr. Badia says that like any athletic activity, warming up generally decreases your risk of injury. He says a good plan is to do some light jogging in place followed by stretching, then to start playing at a slow pace and gradually increase the intensity of play.
To prevent pickle ball injuries, Dr. Badia says something many people aren’t aware of is the power of hydration, a point that has become even more important as heat waves hit many regions of the country. “Being extremely well hydrated has been known among elite athletes to decrease the incidence of muscle strains, and potentially even ligamentous strains,” he explains.
Dr. Badia also recommends the use of elastic braces, such as knee or ankle sleeves, which help your brain better sense where the joint is and how much you’re bending or straining it. “These braces or sleeves also provide elastic support,” he says. “But the reality is if you put too much pressure on the joint, or strain the muscles too much, you’re likely to hurt yourself.”
What type of shoes should, or shouldn’t, you wear to play pickleball?
Dr. Badia says the best type of footwear for pickleball is a good pair of court sneakers that are snug on the foot and have good traction. He suggests you avoid shoes designed for running or specific sports like basketball. “Running shoes don’t have much lateral stability,” he says, “which means they don’t offer support during the back and forth motions pickleball involves.” He adds that running shoes also tend to have highly elastic upper elements, which don’t provide much support.
He explains that shoes for specific sports like basketball high-tops have elements that can interfere with the back-and-forth ankle motions of pickleball.
Here’s what to do if you get a pickleball injury
“The concept of RICE is always critical with most types of minor injuries,” Badia says. RICE stands for rest, ice, compression, and elevation. To help treat an ankle sprain, for example, he suggests icing the ankle while using an ACE compression bandage and elevating the ankle to a level higher than the heart.
Badia stresses the importance of getting an early, accurate assessment of your injury. He says that most people put too much faith in the ability of general practitioners or ER doctors, who are unlikely to know much about musculoskeletal injuries, to provide specialized care. He hopes a trend emerges that advocates for the creation of more orthopedic walk-in centers or urgent orthopedic centers.
“If your community has one of these centers, that’s by far the best place to go,” he says. That’s because in order to get a proper assessment and treatment plan, you really need to be seen by a physician who specializes in the joint or part of the body you’ve injured.
Dr. Badia anticipates that he and his colleagues in orthopedic medicine will likely see more and more pickleball injuries. But when it comes to weighing the risks of playing pickleball with the mental and psychical benefits, especially for older or aging people, he thinks the choice is an easy one:”Are you going to risk tearing a hamstring or spraining an ankle? Yes,” he says. “But sitting on the couch is much worse for your health.”
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