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Health Matters: Pickleball Injuries Are Becoming Epidemic | News, sports, jobs

Health Matters: Pickleball Injuries Are Becoming Epidemic |  News, sports, jobs


Conway McLean, DPM, magazine columnist

America is known as a country of sports fanatics. Just look at the attention placed on sports in this country: from youth sports to the many collegiate athletic events, all the professional leagues, and add to that the recent explosion of sports betting, it is a pervasive part of life in this country. If you want numerical proof of this, just look at the monies associated with the NFL, the million dollar salaries, the advertising, the professional game is a huge part of the American economy.

Many argue that there is too much focus on sports because for most of us it is a passive involvement. We mainly watch and do not participate. Millions of eyes were glued to their screens for this second Sunday's big match. How many viewers did something active last week? We have become a nation of spectators.

But there's a popular new sport sweeping the world that's easy to learn and fun to play. What is important in any discussion of this athletic activity, with the subject of pickle ball, is that it can be enjoyed well into the later years. This was the biggest selling point initially: it was a sport that 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 a fusion of ping pong, badminton and tennis.

Their goal was to create a game that was only moderately athletic, meaning young people could play, but older people could too. Pickleball is now the fastest growing sport in America and has been that way for several years. But now that they've earned a reputation for allowing anyone to join in, many do, even if they're not in the physical condition to do so.

Regardless of your age, if you are not in at least average physical condition, you should be cautious when undertaking any new sporting activity, regardless of the type. This applies to pickleball as much as it does to walking, cycling or any other physical activity. While nothing like the requirements of most major sports, pickleball does require a minimum fitness level.

Pickleball isn't the most taxing sport (especially doubles) and doesn't provide an exhausting workout, but studies have shown benefits for agility and hand-eye coordination. It can improve your cardiovascular health if you're out of shape, but that requires a fairly intense level of play and more frequent participation. Experts have noted mild improvements in strength and fitness, but these reached a plateau after a few months of regular play.

There are dangers to almost every sport (but hey, curling??) and even pickleball comes with some dangers. The data shows that pickleball causes more injuries than running or swimming. The mechanics of the sport lend themselves to injuries from repetitive use, especially to the wrist and elbow, and injuries from sudden, sharp movements.

In addition to improving your fitness before taking up the sport, prevention is an excellent practice; a recommended approach is to warm up before playing. (Stretching is only effective after the muscles and tissues have been thoroughly treated “warmed up,” meaning you've already played.) For years, the benefits of increasing blood flow to the involved soft tissues (calves, quads, hamstrings, etc.) have been recognized. This can be achieved with some of the standard exercises such as jumping jacks, or by performing the movements required for the sport but at a drastically reduced intensity (at least initially, and increasing thereafter).

Lower extremity injuries are more likely if someone has a biomechanical alignment problem, as most of us do. An arch that goes too far down or a metatarsal that is slightly out of position, these and countless other variations lead to problems over time. A physical sport like this will put strain on different structures, for example tendons and joints, which is best avoided by preserving things “to stand in line”, best done with some type of arch support or foot orthosis, to replace the insole of your sports shoe.

Shoes are an important part of the support system for your muscles, bones, tendons, etc., but shoes are obviously generic. Certainly, with the millions of athletic shoe models on the market, there is almost certainly a model that will work for you, if you can find it. It can be a difficult task for many people depending on resources and availability.

Once a body part becomes sore after a typical pickleball match, the long-practiced RICE method (rest, ice, compression, elevation) can be used. The thinking about 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 accomplished using one of the many braces available, made for every possible part of the body. A consistently effective rule is to initiate gentle movements to rehabilitate the injured part, without significant force or stress (without weight).

If you are new to the sport, consider your fitness level before participating. True strength training will help everyone, but is especially vital for older players, as muscle loss occurs for 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 more and more people are taking advantage of it. The social aspect of pickleball is often cited as positive due to the rotating format, which means you play and meet many others. Due to the lack 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. Participate and get physical; the human body needs to move.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Dr. Conway McLean is a podiatrist who now practices foot and ankle medicine in the Upper Peninsula after joining the practice of Dr. Ken Tabor has taken over. McLean has lectured internationally on surgery and wound care, and is certified in both, with a subspecialty in foot orthotic therapy. Dr. McLean welcomes questions, comments and suggestions at [email protected].

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