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    Senior living: How to stay healthy when playing pickleball
    • July 10, 2023

    By Dr. Andrew Le, guest columnist

    Pickleball fever has hit Americans and there is no doubt it’s the fastest growing sport in the United States.

    Many seniors have picked up on this sport and made it a part of their daily exercise regimen – which is great. It is important for seniors to continue staying active as they age, and pickleball is the perfect low-impact exercise.

    Andrew Le, DO, CAQSM MemorialCare Medical Group. (Photo courtesy of MemorialCare)

    But it’s important to note that in a 2021 study found in the National Library of Medicine, data showed pickleball could cost Americans, especially seniors, nearly $377 million in health care costs this year, accounting for 5-10% of total unexpected medical spending.

    The study also showed that pickleball-related injuries occur most frequently in older adults. From 2010 to 2019, 86% of emergency department visits occurred in people at least 60 years old. Among pickleball injuries, 60% result from sprains, fractures or strains; 20% from contusions, abrasions or internal injuries; and fewer than 10% from lacerations and/or dislocations.

    Common and complex pickleball injuries

    Most injuries in seniors related to pickleball occur in the elbow, shoulder, leg and foot:

    Elbow injuries such as lateral epicondylitis, or tennis elbow, are typically the result of overuse injuries found in the muscles and tendons that can cause pain and swelling.
    Shoulder injuries may occur from improper technique, not stretching or over-exertion. Common shoulder injuries include tendinitis or bursitis but can range to more complex injuries, such as rotator cuff tears.
    Leg injuries tend to be strained muscles, ankle sprains and Achilles’ tendon injuries from running, jumping or lunging. This could be from several issues, such as dehydration, over-extension or pivoting/twisting motions.
    Foot injuries include blisters or plantar fasciitis, which can stem from improper footwear, or repetitive running, jumping or sliding motions — all common maneuvers in pickleball.

    Most of these injuries can be treated in an outpatient clinic or doctor’s office, along with rest, icing and recovery. But it is important for seniors to seek medical attention from their doctor if the injury persists.

    Some of the more complex injuries from pickleball may include:

    Severe ankle sprains or tears: These usually impact the ligaments that are most commonly on the outside of the ankle. When these ligaments are severely injured, you may be sidelined for a while and even require a walking boot or a cast in some cases.
    Achilles’ tendon rupture: A traumatic tear that connects the calf muscles (gastrocnemius and soleus) to the heel bone (calcaneus) in the foot. This injury often requires surgical repair.
    Rotator cuff tear: Adults in their 50s and older can develop full-thickness rotator cuff tears without a major injury. Traumatic full-thickness rotator cuff tears tend to require surgical repair to restore optimal function. But with newer technology, these surgeries can almost always be done with minimal invasiveness, with three to four tiny incisions. After surgery, physical therapy is critical, and the post-operative rehab may take some time prior to returning to the court.
    Wrist fracture: Breaks in the bone often occur from falls on an outstretched hand, with a distal radius fracture being the most common. If the fracture is minimally displaced, treatment may include a simple brace or a cast. If the fracture is displaced, it may require reduction and surgical repair.

    Preventing pickleball injuries

    For seniors, warming up and cooling down is necessary, and essential to ensure you are properly loosened up and ready for activity.

    Key tips to help avoid pickleball injuries include:

    Warming up before the match: Stretching and light cardiovascular exercises, such as jogging, will help lower the risk of injury.
    Cooling down after the match: Proper nutrition and rehydration, as well as foam rolling and stretching, will help your body repair and recover.
    Being aware of your surroundings: Be careful not to trip on balls that may have rolled onto your side or loose bag straps laying around the court.
    Taking regular breaks and not over-practicing: It is important during the match for seniors to take frequent breaks, as the risk of injury increases with fatigue. When first starting, gradually increase or ramp up your activity level to minimize overuse injuries.
    Drinking plenty of water and fluids: This is essential for your vital organs and will protect you against heat-related illnesses and dehydration.
    Having proper training, technique and form: If you are a beginner, take time to join a class or learn the proper technique before playing competitively. Having proper form and mechanics can significantly minimize your risk of overuse injuries.

    The key to an injury-free pickleball season is preparation, planning and practice. If you stick to these routines, you will enjoy all the benefits of physical activity and social interaction with your fellow pickleball players.

    Dr. Andrew Le is a family medicine and sports medicine physician at MemorialCare Medical Group. Le completed his medical education at Western University of Health Sciences. During his time there, he received multiple scholarships and awards in family medicine, was the President of the Sports Medicine Club and graduated with honors. He has a specialized interest in diagnostic and interventional ultrasound, orthobiologics, management of chronic tendinopathy and arthritis, and comprehensive wellness care for patients of all ages.

    ​ Orange County Register