With 4.8 million active players in 2021, a two-year increase of 39%, pickleball is the fastest-growing sport in America. The game — a hybrid of tennis, badminton and ping-pong — was also named the "fastest-growing sport for seniors" by the Healthy Aging Newsletter. And why not?
As an avid older player myself, I can attest to the fact that pickleball is exciting, easy to learn, challenging, great exercise and plain old fun.
But pickleball may also be responsible for the fastest-growing number of sports injuries among older people. That's something I can also attest to. As I backpedaled to get to a lob going over my head recently, my feet tangled and I found myself falling backward.
Muscle memory stopped me from putting my hands down to brace my fall, thus preventing a wrist injury. I landed on my butt, which is good.
Unfortunately, my momentum was too great and my head smacked the ground and bounced around like a bobblehead.
Following an ambulance ride, emergency department visit and CAT scan, I was declared free of any concussion and cleared to go home.
Every health professional I encountered during my ordeal — the ambulance paramedic, intake nurse, doctor and technician — all had the same reaction to how I got hurt: "Ah, yes, another pickleball injury. That's what every other older patient comes in with."
Truth is, the National Electronic Injury Surveillance System estimated there are 19,000 pickleball injuries a year nationwide, and an astounding 91% of those were patients 50 or older. Men and women were about equal in the number of pickleball injuries, with sprains or strains accounting for about 29% of the cases and fractures 28%.
With those frightening statistics, you might ask: Why on Earth would any of us play this game? The simple answer is that it's FUN. And it's strenuous. It's also a great socializing activity.
Most (pickle)ballers play a doubles game with lots of interaction among the players. The games are quick, only 10 to 15 minutes each.
And in many venues, players switch partners after each game, which means that in an hour or two of playing, including some downtime in between, I could be socializing with eight or 10 different people. That's the making of meaningful friendships in addition to the other obvious benefits of the exercise.
But considering the risk of potential injuries, we have to be careful how we play the game.
Julie Kessler, a pickleball professional-registry-certified coach, reminds her students that if you haven't had regular exercise or activity, start slow and play for a limited time.
"Pickleball is fun and addictive so it's easy to play for hours," she says. That can increase the risk of getting injured.
Here are seven tips that will help prevent pickleball injuries, so you can continue to enjoy the game:
1. Warm up
Most of us stretch and warm up before playing, but Kessler recommends specific drills that are unique to pickleball.
Because the game requires so many quick, short movements, she says warmups should include lateral steps, grapevines (a form of aerobics exercise), high-knee marches, skipping and lunges to loosen muscles.
2. Wear appropriate shoes
Pickleball is a speed game with continuous stops and starts. Good footing is your foundation for preventing falls, and falls lead to most of the sport's sprains and fractures.
As Kessler says, "The hard court is very unforgiving and can cause sore muscles and joints ... and worse." She recommends shoes that have a good tread and are designed for tennis or pickleball played on a hard court. Don't skimp on your shoes.
3. Avoid heatstroke
Most pickleball courts are outside. On a hot day, the court temperature can be 5 degrees hotter than the surrounding air temperature.
As we get older, it's easy to get dehydrated, which can lead to more serious conditions. Drinking water, or even better, a beverage infused with electrolytes, will keep your head clear.
Since games are short, you can take a break in between them to cool off and replenish these vital nutrients. And be sure to wear a hat or visor in the sun.
4. Maintain your balance
Probably the biggest danger playing pickleball is losing your balance. Kessler encourages exercises such as standing on a balance board or on one leg, and when playing, leading with your paddle.
"Track the ball with the front edge of your paddle," she says. "When your paddle and your toes point in the same direction, you're less prone to reaching too far and losing your balance."
5. Avoid backpedaling
With apologies to Neil Sedaka, "Backing up is hard to do." Just as I tripped over my own feet — and I'm usually quite agile — it's easy to trip, especially as you're looking up at the lob that's going over your head.
The bright sun can also be shining directly into your eyes. The best solution, according to Kessler, is not to backpedal, but to turn your hips toward the ball.
And partners need to communicate. For example, you should go for the lob over your partner's head and your partner can get the ball going over your head. Neither of you backpedals in that situation because you're running at an angle to the back of the court.
6. Don't play on a wet court
It may be your worst enemy of all. Many avid pickleball players are so eager to get on the court that when we see a damp one, they figure, "Oh, that's dry enough."
It only takes the one spot that didn't dry or drain well to cause a serious slip. And no matter how much tread you have on your new, specially designed pickleball shoe, it's no match for water. Wait for another time or day.
7. Protect your eyes
Racquet sports like pickleball have consistently ranked as one of the top activities linked to eye injuries. Some can be serious enough to cause a permanent loss of eyesight.
Wearing shatterproof glasses or sunglasses will help. And, while it may seem obvious, get used to where your partner is located. Calling out "I've got it!" when a ball is yours will help avoid you or someone else being hit with a pickleball paddle.
This article originally appeared on NextAvenue.org.