Health Matters: Pickleball injuries becoming epidemic

Conway McLean, DPM, Journal columnist

America is known as a land of sports fanatics. Examine for a moment the attention directed towards sports in this country: from youth sports to the many collegiate athletic events, all the professional competitions, then add in the recent explosion of sports betting, it is a pervasive part of life in this country. If you want numerical evidence of this, simply look at the monies associated with the NFL, the million dollar salaries, the advertising, the pro game is a large part of the American economy.

Many claim there is too much attention on sports since, for most of us, it’s a passive involvement. We are mostly spectating, not participating. There were millions of eyes glued to their screen for the big game this second Sunday. How many of those watching did something active the previous week? We have become a nation of spectators.

But there’s a hot, new sport sweeping the globe that’s easy to learn and fun to play. Important in any discussion on this athletic pursuit, the subject being pickle ball, is that it can be enjoyed well into one’s later years. This was initially it’s biggest selling point: it was a sport even seniors could play. It was invented in 1965 on a badminton court using table tennis paddles and a Wiffle ball and has been described as an amalgamation of ping pong, badminton, and tennis.

Their goal was to create a game only moderately athletic, meaning young people could play, but so could older individuals. Pickleball is now the fastest-growing sport in America and has been so for several years. But having gained this reputation that everyone could participate, many are, even if they aren’t in the physical condition to do so.

Regardless of your age, if you are not in at least average physical condition, you need to be wary when undertaking some new sporting activity, no matter the type. This is as true for pickleball as would be for hiking, biking, or any other physical endeavor. Although nothing like the requirements of most of the major sports, pickleball does demand some minimal level of fitness.

Pickleball isn’t the most taxing sport (especially when playing doubles) and doesn’t provide an exhausting workout, but studies have revealed benefits to agility and hand-eye coordination. It can boost your cardiovascular health if you are out of shape but required for that is a fairly intense level of play, as well as more frequent participation. Experts have noted mild improvements in strength and fitness, but these hit a plateau after a few months of playing regularly.

There are dangers to most every sport (then again, curling??) and even pickleball carries certain hazards. The data reveals more injuries are suffered in pickleball than walking or swimming. The mechanics of the sport lend themselves well to repetitive-use injuries, especially in the wrist and elbow, and injuries from sudden, sharp movements.

Along with improving your level of fitness prior to undertaking the sport, prevention is an excellent practice, one recommended approach being to warm up before playing. (Stretching is effective only after the muscles and tissues are thoroughly “warmed up,” meaning you’ve already played.) Well recognized for years is the benefits of increasing blood flow to the soft tissues involved (calf, quads, hamstrings, etc). This can be achieved with some of the standard exercises like jumping jacks, or by performing the motions required of the sport, but at a drastically reduced intensity (at least initially, then increasing).

Lower extremity injury is more likely if one has a biomechanical alignment problem, as most of us do. An arch that lowers too much or a metatarsal bone slightly out of position, these and numerous other variations lead to problems with time. A physical sport such as this will stress various structures, tendons and joints for example, better avoided by keeping things “lined up,” best done with some type of arch support or foot orthotic, replacing your sports shoe insole.

As to shoes, they are an important part of the support system for your muscles, bones, tendons, etc., but shoes are obviously generic. Certainly, with the millions of sport shoe models on the market, there’s almost certainly one that works for you, should you be able to find it. It can be a difficult task for many people, depending on resources and availability.

Once some body part becomes painful after a typical pickleball match, the long-practiced RICE method can be utilized (Rest, Ice, Compression, Elevation). The thinking on the benefits of icing for acute injuries has changed over the years for many medical experts but it does help with pain. Resting the extremity is best achieved with use of one of the abundant braces available, made for every possible body part. A consistently effective rule is the initiation of gentle movements to rehab the injured part, without significant force or stress (non-weight bearing).

If new to the sport, consider your level of fitness prior to participating. An actual strength training routine is going to help everyone but is especially vital for aging players since muscle loss occurs in all of us over the years. A calf muscle tear is more likely to result from a quick lunge to the side for a pickleball shot when the muscle is weaker.

The sport of pickleball has become available to many Americans and increasing numbers are taking advantage. The social aspect of pickleball is often mentioned as a positive because of the rotating format, meaning you play, and meet, many others. Because of the dearth of options for fun physical fitness activities for seniors, pickleball is all the rage and shows no signs of abating. Find a local game and give it a try. Get involved and get physical; the human body needs to move.

EDITORS NOTE: Dr. Conway McLean is a podiatric physician now practicing foot and ankle medicine in the Upper Peninsula, having assumed the practice of Dr. Ken Tabor. McLean has lectured internationally on surgery and wound care, and is board certified in both, with a sub-specialty in foot orthotic therapy. Dr. McLean welcomes questions, comments and suggestions at drcmclean@penmed.com.


Today's breaking news and more in your inbox

I'm interested in (please check all that apply)
Are you a paying subscriber to the newspaper *

Starting at $4.62/week.

Subscribe Today