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Medical Moment: Preventing pickleball injuries

South Bend-Elkhart WNDU-TV logo South Bend-Elkhart WNDU-TV 5/9/2022 16 News Now Staff
WNDU © Caroline Cluiss WNDU

(WNDU) - During the pandemic, the popularity of pickleball exploded. Now, nearly five million players have picked up the game last year alone.

However, one trend growing in parallel with the rise of pickleball are the injuries from playing the sport.

Despite this, the pickleball craze is showing no signs of slowing down.

“My favorite part of the game, that’s smashing the ball and they can’t return it,” said Michael Callen, a pickleball enthusiast. “The ball is smaller, the court size is smaller, so you are kind of put into a smaller frame. It is more of a challenge to keep yourself vertical.”

Pickleball is played on a badminton-sized court with the net set to a height of 34 inches. It uses a perforated plastic ball and composite or wooden paddles that are double the size of ping-pong paddles. This sport can be played indoors or outdoors and is easy to learn.

However, it can develop into a fast-paced, competitive game for experienced players.

Pickleball can be played as singles or doubles, and equipment is fairly inexpensive, easily portable, and can be played by all ages. It is especially popular in school P.E. programs and in adult living communities. The game has developed a passionate following due to its friendly, social nature, and its multi-generational appeal. The sport is governed by the USA Pickleball Association which maintains the rules, sanctions tournaments, and provides player ratings.

About 19,000 pickleball injuries occur every year. 95 percent of those players are 50 or older. Common injuries include ankle sprains, Achilles tendonitis, wrist fractures, and hamstring or quadriceps muscle strain. So, what can players do to prevent these injuries? First is a proper warm up.

“It’s really arriving at least 15 to 20 minutes early, getting some light warm up to get your blood flow rolling,” said Charles Bush-Joseph, MD, Midwest Orthopedics at Rush.

Do lateral steps, grapevines, high-knee marches, skipping and lunges to loosen muscles also. Don’t skimp on the shoes. Get shoes that have good tread and are designed for tennis or pickleball played on a hard court. Good footing is your foundation for preventing falls.

And you don’t need to slam the balls.

“It’s more of a game of finesse, where you dink the balls,” said Mary Keiser, another pickleball enthusiast.

Playing pickleball can help boost mental, emotional, and cognitive health.

Running around on a court gets the heart pumping, which boosts blood flow to the brain. This increases the supply of oxygen, glucose, and nutrients to the organ between the ears, enhancing overall brain health. The footwork and hand-eye coordination required to play activates the cerebellum, an area at the back bottom of the brain involved in cognitive flexibility and processing speed.

Research from Brazil shows that physical activity that requires planning, like deciding to smash the ball or dink it softly over the net, and complex movements result in higher gray matter volume, which is associated with increased ability to evaluate rewards and consequences.

Moving the body protects the hippocampus, structures located within the temporal lobes that are involved in the formation of memories. Getting the heart-pumping allows more of the natural mood-enhancing amino acid L-tryptophan to enter the brain, which is the precursor to the neurotransmitter serotonin that helps balance moods.

And the social bonding that comes with playing a group activity like pickleball helps combat loneliness and boosts mood.

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