Pickleball is everywhere these days, and people of all ages enjoy the sport — but its rise in popularity has also meant an increase in injuries.
Described as a mix between tennis, badminton and ping-pong, pickleball is very social. It’s also easy to learn and it doesn’t require a lot of running.
With nearly 5 million players, it has become the fastest-growing sport in America — and some doctors say they're seeing a lot more patients come in their offices with pickleball injuries.
"We see the gamut from acute injuries like sprains and strains, even the occasional fracture to the more chronic overuse injuries, things like tendinitis and arthritis-type pain," said Dr. Korin Hudson, a sports medicine physician with MedStar Health.
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Hudson said part of the problem is that players ramp up too quickly, accounting for many of the injuries she sees both on and off the court.
"Young women in their 30s and 40s who come in with knee pain," Hudson said. "Some of our older athletes will come in with rotator cuff pain, that shoulder pain that comes from a lot of aggressive, sometimes overhead activities."
Pickleball injuries have risen steadily since 2015, according to researchers who tracked players over the age of 60.
Nationally, about 19,000 pickleball-related injuries are treated in emergency departments each year.
Many more seek treatment at doctors’ offices, including Jamie Steinberg, who developed a condition called tennis elbow just two months after she started playing.
"Driving in the car and trying to pick up a coffee mug hurt," Steinberg said. "It was so bad that sleeping was hard. It would kind of wake me up and throb in pain."
Steinberg didn't have any experience, but got hooked on pickleball as soon as she picked up a paddle.
"I started playing four or five days a week, two or three hours a day," she said.
It turns out her paddle was too heavy and she didn’t have the proper technique. After several months of physical therapy, she was back in action with a two-handed back hand.
"I did get a lighter paddle. I started wearing a brace. I started exercising to strengthen and stretch and working with the sports massage therapist really helped," Steinberg said.
Barbara Dietz has been playing pickleball for five years.
"I really loved the game, love the people, love the camaraderie," Dietz said.
She said she now wears goggles when she plays after injuring her eye.
"It was a pretty strong serve and that deflected into my eye really hard, and it scared me a lot," she said. "I'm OK, but it could have detached my retina."
Tips for Preventing Pickleball Injuries
"Don't go from no activity to playing four times a week immediately," Hudson said. "Start with slow increases in activity, 15 to 20 minutes, then going to 60 minutes over a period of weeks."
Hudson said it's also important to do a pre-game stretch and warm-up.
Pickleball players need to focus on their footwear, Hudson said, and get court shoes that are designed for lateral movement. Running shoes or regular sneakers could be a problem on a pickleball court.
Also, getting lessons from an experienced professional to learn the proper technique can go far.
Lastly, players need to listen to their bodies.
"It is a social activity that gets people outside and gets them fit and active in a way that is enjoyable. It is, though, a sport. It does come with injury risks," Hudson said. "We don't want to scare people off so that they're not participating, but we want to make people aware that there are some risks they’ve got to pay attention to them so that they can participate safely."
Hudson said most pickleball injuries can be managed with physical therapy and over the counter medications and rarely require surgery.