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‘It happens a lot’: Pickleball injuries rise with sport’s popularity

Pickleball is exploding — if you don’t play it right now, you likely know someone who is. It’s a slower pace sport with a social focus and less running than tennis, but players can get competitive.

According to Pickleball Canada, one million Canadians are now playing pickleball at least once a month.

“It’s just so much fun, its great exercise and you get to meet a lot of interesting people.” said Tim Pennal, who plays at the Progress Pickleball Club in Toronto. He’s been playing it for 10 years and can’t get enough of the game. “Very addictive, I play everyday, Monday to Friday that’s my job in retirement,” said Pennal.

But as the sport rises in popularity, so, too, have the number of injuries associated with it.

“I’ve picked people up here that have fallen down, hurt themselves, broken wrists, pulled muscles in legs. It happens a lot, but I think the conditioning for the lungs and heart are so much better, it makes it worth it.” said Mike Livie, president of the Progress Pickleball Club.

Injuries can range from pulled muscles, sprains and strains, to more serious injuries like Achilles tendon rupture and upper body fractures.

Harold Phillips was experiencing his first game when he suffered a serious injury.

“Right after the break, I lunged for the ball, heard a pop and that was it, the Achilles tendon ruptured and that was the end of my Pickleball career… for this year anyways,” said Phillips.

He was testing out the sport after hearing about it from friends. A very active person who plays a lot of sports, Phillips is hopeful for a full recovery.

“I saw my orthopedic surgeon yesterday, she said no surgery; it’s a standard 12-week protocol. It’s very common, of course, I have an air cast on for a certain period of time,” said Phillips, who starts physiotherapy next week and plans to return to the court once he’s cleared.

Injured pickleball player Harold Phillips is seen home and off the court with an Achilles Tendon rupture in this photo. (Submitted by Harold Phillips)

Analysts in the United States estimate medical costs associated with pickleball could reach $377 million this year

Dr. Nathan Urquhart is an orthopedic surgeon in Halifax who speclializes in sports medicine. He’s seeing an increase in injury at his clinic.

“Pickleball is slower pace, however, you could still get into a surprising amount of trouble and a lot of times, it’s people who find it exciting, interesting, they haven’t really maybe done some activities for a while,” said Urquhart.

He wants to encourage as much physical activity as possible and get people active outdoors, but Urquhart cautions that with any sport comes risk.

“It’s just about how much risk you want to bite off and the risk of injury is different depending on age,” he said.

While the sport is growing in popularity with players aged 18 to 34, it is very common with people in their 50s and 60s, who have a higher risk of muscles tweaks, sprains and even fractures.

“We’re seeing a lot of Achilles tendon ruptures, but also a lot of upper extremity fractures in the over 60 population,” said Urquhart. He attributes that to the way the game is played, you’re not running for the ball, but you may make sudden movements. “They try to change directions their centre of mass, it’s a little far outside where their feet are and they trip and fall.”

The sport is a social activity, but it can get competitive — even for beginners. “Everyone wants to be a pickleball world champion and they get out there and start playing aggressive,” said Urquhart, adding, “Their mind is writing checks that their body can’t cash kind of thing.”

And not everyone falls as gracefully as they once did, “when we’re younger, we’ll do a more ‘tuck-and-roll,’ whereas when you’re a little bit older, you just fall and plant your hand and you end up with a sequence of fractures,” said Urquhart.

For the most part, sports specialists say you shouldn’t let a risk of injury stop you — it’s a fun sport, with millions now playing it worldwide.

“Its just so much fun, its great exercise and you get to meet a lot of interesting people,” said Pennal.

Just know your body limit and be sure to warm up before you hit the court.  

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