As the thwack of the pickleball is the dink heard round the nation, more and more people are getting in on the fun. Pickleball, a mash-up of ping-pong, tennis and badminton, is the fastest-growing sport in the country, with 8.9 million players volleying and “dinking” at courts across the nation, according to the Sports & Fitness Industry Association. The association says participation in the sport increased by a whopping 159 percent over three years.
The sport’s name, legend has it, stems either from a cocker spaniel owned by one of the founders or the pickle boat of crew races. It’s played on a small court — one tennis court can be subdivided into four pickleball courts — with two teams of two people per team.
Pickleball players, fondly referred to as picklers, have taken to the courts with a fierce zeal. The sport’s instantaneous appeal can be chalked up to its preternaturally low barrier to entry. The time between learning the game and having a blast with it can be as brief as an hour. You can even play if you are in a wheelchair (with slightly different rules).
Strains and sprains rising
The benefits to pickleball are numerous, from exercise and mental acuity to social connection and purpose. In the shadows of its meteoric rise, however, lies a wake of pickleball-related injuries. Pickleball is categorized as a low-impact and mild-intensity sport, but pickleball injuries are growing.
One analysis published in 2021 in Injury Epidemiology estimated that there were nearly 29,000 pickleball injuries from 2010 to 2019. About 60 percent were strains, sprains and fractures, according to the study, and 85 percent of those visiting emergency rooms because of a pickleball injury were over age 60. Wrist and lower leg injuries were most common, the study found, followed by head, lower trunk, ankle, knee and shoulder. Injuries were mainly due to slips, trips, falls and dives.
Although injuries are becoming more commonplace, they are still a mere fraction relative to the legions of players who remain unscathed. “Pickleball overall is a very safe sport. Compared to other sports, the injury rate per minute is much lower, ” says Bruce Moseley, an orthopedic surgeon at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston.
But as with any sport, the more people play, the more injuries will occur. Compared to tennis, says Moseley, “pickleball is more stepping and moving than jumping and running. This is great for your joints and muscles. People can tolerate it better.” The rackets are smaller, lighter and less cumbersome than tennis rackets, and the whiffle-type ball made from plastic is easier to hit.
“By far the most effective way to protect against these injuries is to stretch and warm up beforehand,” Moseley says. Many of these injuries could be prevented by stretching the fronts and backs of the leg, the trunk and the lower back, he adds.
So there’s no need to retire your racket — just add a brief warm-up to your pickleball playbook, and chances are you will be all set.
Exercises to prevent pickleball injuries
AARP asked Lee Whitwell, reigning MVP of Major League Pickleball (MLP), to design our pickleball dynamic stretching routine. Whitwell grew up playing tennis, became a Division II national champion and went on to play professionally. She picked up a pickleball paddle for the first time in 2017 and soon after participated in her inaugural pickleball tournament — and won. She competes professionally and is a huge advocate of the game, which she sees as offering not just a great workout but a third space, similar to the one that church occupies, beyond work and home.
“It’s so inclusive and so accepting,” she says. “Nobody cares whether you are Black, white, male, female, old, young, Democrat, Republican, able-bodied, not able-bodied. It doesn’t matter. They just want to go out there and have fun.”