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Staying safe on the pickleball court: good advice for every age

Although it’s been around over 50 years, pickleball has really taken off in the last decade. According to USA Pickleball, nearly 4.3 million Americans play regularly. Of that total, some 67 percent are 55 or older.

Picking up a racket sport in middle age is not without risk. If you play or are planning to start, it’s important to do it safely.

“Part of the problem is a 20-year-old mind inside a 70-year-old body,” says Dr. Mark Kemenosh, owner of Kemenosh and Associates Chiropractic in southern New Jersey. “It’s a fun game, it’s a social activity, everybody loves it, but it’s easy to overdo it, especially when things get competitive,” he says.

Opportunities for Trouble

Dr. Mark says he sees quite a few wounded pickleball warriors in his practice—most often with tendonitis and wrist, knee, back and shoulder issues.

“There’s a lot going on in that game. The court is smaller than tennis, so there’s more stops and starts. You’re swinging a paddle, which stresses the elbow, wrist and shoulder. And people tend to play hard, both men and women,” he says.

Dr. Mark explains that any racket sport puts a lot of force on many areas of the body. When you swing a bat, golf club or pickleball racket, your arm is in eccentric contraction. That’s a fancy way of saying the muscle is actively contracting to make the swing happen—while the mechanics of the motion force it to stretch, even as it contracts. 

Essentially, the muscles and tendons are being pushed and pulled at the same time. If they’re not up to the task, the muscle can be overloaded and collapse. It’s the equivalent of what happens when the losing team in a game of tug-of-war all fall down.

“Swinging the paddle is powered by rotation in the trunk that can cause injuries and inflammation. The back, arms, wrists and hands are at risk, along with the abdominal muscles. And the stops and starts can be tough on the knees and ankles,” he says.

It all comes back to kinetic chain. To swing the paddle, for example, rotation is generated in the hips and quads, transferred to the trunk, shoulder, arms and wrist. “If anything goes wrong in any link of the chain, you can end up with inflammation, strain, pain or something worse,” he says.

Play it safe

Mark says the advice to play safely is similar to any other sport:

  • Know your limits.
  • Go easy to start and build endurance slowly.
  • Warm up before hitting the court with a brisk walk or some low-intensity play before you start keeping score.
  • Be especially careful when playing up a level—against opponents with more experience; it’s an easy way to get into trouble.
  • Listen to your body—if any pain lasts more than 48 hours, it might be more than just sore muscles and it’s time to seek professional help. Don’t hesitate.

Don’t delay care

Dr. Mark says an injury sustained in pickleball can be made worse by self-treatment. “Some players think they can tape themselves out of a jam with K-tape or they consult their playing partners or Dr. Google and decide they’re fine to get back in the game. This can be very wrongheaded and end up hurting you more,” he says.

“I see folks who have been suffering with tennis elbow for months. Had they come in earlier, we’d have had a lot easier time getting them back in shape. The longer you wait, the more intervention you’re going to need to get back in the game. Don’t put it off,” he says.

Fortunately, Mark and his team of chiropractors are all experienced in athletic injuries and the techniques they practice are very effective for pain relief and loosening things up. 

“Of course, on physical exam, we’ll know pretty quickly if it’s something we can handle in the office or if you need more aggressive intervention. Generally speaking, it’s four to six sessions in the office, along with a regimen of stretching and strengthening done at home. We generally see improvement almost immediately and your doctor will work with you to develop a plan to train and return to play safety,” he explains.

Mark says pickleball is great exercise and a terrific way to keep your mind active—both extremely important for health at any age. But it’s easy to get ahead of your skill and get hurt—so play it safe.