By Dr. Vonthron and Kurtis Mullaney PT, DPT, ATC, LAT
There has been an exponential increase in the interest of the sport of Pickleball over the past 10 years. So much so that outlets such as the NY times have called it the “sport of the future”. The sport was developed in 1965, and can be indoors or outdoors. It is on a badminton-sized court with a net slightly lower than a tennis net. It is somewhat of a cross between tennis, ping pong, and badminton. Pickleball is played with paddles and a baseball sized wiffle ball, where the object of the game is to hit the ball over the net onto the opponent’s side of the court with the opponent not being able to return your volley.
According to the Sports and Fitness Industry Association there were 3.3 million pickleball players in the United States in 2019. Since 2015 the number of overall participants in this sport has increased by almost 10% per year, with an astronomical increase of almost 40% per year in athletes over the age of 64 years old.
Why Is It Pickleball So Popular?
Other than the sport being objectively awesome, gaining labels such as “ping pong on steroids”. It grants the player with the opportunity to hit shots like the overhead smash, the falafel, and the flapjack. Another reason for the increase in popularity is it also has a perception of being a safe alternative to other sports, namely tennis.
Injuries Compared to Tennis
It is a common suggestion that since the sport requires little running, less aggressive swings of the paddle, and shorter match time, that the risk of injury is lower than playing tennis. However, this is not necessarily the case. From 2010 to 2019, there were 28,984 reported pickleball related injuries and 58,836 tennis related injuries in athletes 60 or older. When you factor in that there are still almost twice as many tennis players as pickle ball players in this age group, we can conclude that the risk of injury is very similar to that of playing tennis.
Injuries in pickleball have increased to the point where there were close to the same number if pickleball injuries as tennis injuries in 2018. It is hard to account for this sudden spike in injuries, but it is thought to be due to the increase in intensity and competitiveness of the sport along with an increase in participation.
Is Pickleball A Safe Recreational Sport for the Aging Adult?
Even though there is less running than tennis, pickleball requires quick reactions, good balance and stability, cardiovascular endurance, and adequate shoulder, hip, and spine mobility to participate at any level safely. The number one mechanism of pickleball injuries in the aging athlete is slipping/tripping/falling/diving. These injuries account for over 75% of injuries for female athletes and over 55% of male athletes.
Pickleball is played in much closer quarters than tennis, and the risk of running into your partner, or tripping to make a quick cut, is much higher than they are in tennis. The most common injuries to pickleball players are sprains, strains, and fractures, with the wrist being the most common fracture, and the lower leg (calf, Achilles, ankle) the most common are to suffer a sprain or strain.
8 Ways to Reduce Injuries in Pickleball
- Understand that you can still suffer an injury playing the “benign” sport of pickleball.
- Do not take unnecessary risks like diving for unreachable flapjack shots.
- Avoid backpedaling on the court.
- Participating in a 10-minute active warmup prior to competition. This is a pet peeve of mine. I have never one time witnessed a pickleball athlete warmup. This does not mean standing and a circle touching your toes. This means getting your blood pumping and developing a light sweat to increase tissue extensibility and muscle activation. If you do not know what a dynamic warmup is then Google it.
- Participate in other types of exercise. Cross training will help develop the muscle groups needed for safe participation.
- Communicate with your partner. No one wants to injure or suffer an injury by their own teammate…..usually.
- Wear appropriate footwear. Athletic sneakers are usually fine but running shoes do increase your risk of ankle sprains.
- Listen to your body, and rest when you need to. Most people in athletics are competitive. You do not need to prove how competitive you are to anyone by playing on a painful Achilles for 2 more matches. It is not fun for anyone when it pops.
The moral of the story is that regardless of perception, Pickleball may not necessarily be safer than other sports for the aging athlete. However, it should still be a source of enjoyment by all who engage in pickleball. Just understand that you can still injure yourself doing so. Remember, most participants do not injure themselves, and if you practice safe sport participation, you can decrease your risk of injury.
For more from The Jacksonville Orthopaedic Institute on PickleBall Injuries and How to Prevent Them watch our YouTube Video!
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