Painless Pickleball: Preventing and Treating Common Pickleball Injuries

For Individuals
November 1, 2023
How to prevent and treat pickleball injuries

Pickleball is the fastest-growing sport in the U.S. In fact, 48.3 million Americans, or 19% of the adult population, have played at least one game of pickleball in the last year. Its surge in popularity is partly due to people realizing how easy it is to get into—the rules of the game are relatively simple, and it doesn’t require much special training or equipment. This makes it appealing to people of all ages and fitness levels who are looking for a way to get some exercise and make some new friends.

As more and more people take up pickleball, it’s important to spread the word about pickleball safety. While it is a relatively low-impact sport, all sports carry a risk of injury. Keep reading to discover how to protect yourself on the pickleball court and stay injury-free as you play.

Common Pickleball Injuries

Pickleball is easy to learn and fun to play for people of all ages. While it isn’t a contact sport, it entails the following, all of which present a risk for injury:

  • Sudden changes of direction
  • Repetitive movements
  • The potential to lose your balance

Pickleball injuries can be grouped into three major categories:

1. Sprains Sprains are injuries in a ligament, which is a band of tissue connecting bone to bone. They typically occur when a joint is forced to move beyond its normal range of motion, causing the ligament to stretch or tear. With pickleball, the areas most at risk of sprain include the ankles, knees, and wrists.

The severity of a sprain can range from mild (where the ligament is stretched) to severe (where the ligament is torn). Common symptoms include pain, swelling, bruising, and difficulty moving the affected joint.

2. Strains Strains are injuries in your muscles and tendons, which are the tissues connecting muscle to bone. Sprains are caused by sudden or forceful movements, or by overuse of muscles and tendons.

In pickleball, there are multiple areas at risk of strains including:

  • Lower extremities like the hamstrings, quadriceps, groin, and calves from dynamic movement
  • The lower back from excessive twisting
  • Shoulders, wrists, and elbows from repetitive motions

Like sprains, the severity of strains can vary from mild (like a small tear in the muscle fibers) to severe (like a complete tear of the muscle or tendon). Symptoms of strains include pain, muscle spasms, weakness, and limited range of motion.

3. Traumatic Injuries A traumatic injury is a more serious injury that requires immediate medical attention—for example, falling and fracturing a bone.

Pickleball courts are hard. They’re a great surface for getting consistent bounces of the ball, but they hurt to land on if you fall. Changing directions quickly can throw players off balance, causing them to take a tumble. When someone falls, they could sprain or fracture an ankle or wrist, or they could injure their shoulders or hips.

Treating Pickleball Injuries

Despite your best efforts to prevent them, injuries happen on the pickleball court. When they do occur, it’s important to address the situation properly to optimize your recovery and prevent long-term issues.

First and foremost, if the injury seems severe, or if you're unsure—you should seek medical attention. If you have the following symptoms, it's best to get medical attention for a proper diagnosis and treatment plan:

  • Intolerable pain
  • Inability to move the injured area
  • Inability to put weight on the injured area
  • Numbness
  • Visible deformity
  • Lasting pain that doesn’t subside with initial care

But for less severe injuries, you can often recover at home.

When you experience a sprain or strain, it means that there has been damage to the ligaments, muscles, or tendons in the affected area. Your body’s initial—and natural—response to acute injuries is inflammation. Inflammation promotes tissue repair and is an essential part of the healing process.

Many people have been taught to use ice to numb the injured area and alleviate symptoms. However, research shows that using ice on acute injuries can actually delay and impede the healing process because it dampens the body’s inflammatory response. So, since it may slow your overall healing, try to avoid using ice unless you are experiencing excessive pain or swelling.

During the healing process, you should avoid more strenuous activities that could exacerbate the injury—this may mean taking a break from pickleball. However, this does not mean you should stop movement and exercise altogether. Do not immobilize the injured area. Be sure to continue with functional movements—which are the movements you do as part of everyday life. You may experience some mild discomfort during these movements, but you should not be feeling severe pain.

In addition to everyday functional movements, incorporate pain-free, light cardiovascular activities as you can. Think of things like riding a stationary bike, swimming, or even going for a gentle walk. The goal is to simply get your heart rate above resting to increase the blood flow to the injured area, which will help repair damaged tissues. Remember, movement is the best medicine to help your body heal.

Generally speaking, if you follow these guidelines, your body should heal less severe injuries on its own in time. But you should seek medical attention if:

  • Symptoms like pain and swelling either get worse or don’t improve at least mildly after a week
  • You experience increased redness or warmth in the area of injury

The timeline for getting back on the pickleball court is a personal one. Listen to your body and ease back into it, letting your pain guide your gradual return.

Dynamic Pickleball Warm-Up

One of the reasons injuries happen in pickleball is that people often jump right in without warming up—and cold muscles are more prone to injury. A proper warm-up helps reduce the risk of injury and improve your performance by increasing blood flow, loosening muscles, and preparing the body for activity.

Starting with a light jog helps increase blood flow to the muscles and gradually elevate the heart rate. This can be as simple as taking a few slow laps around the court. If you don’t have a lot of space, you can even jog in place.

The rest of your warm-up should target areas used during play and include dynamic stretching with active movements to gently take your muscles and joints through a full range of motion.

For instance, pickleball involves a LOT of leg movement, so it’s important to thoroughly warm up the legs. Lunges are a great exercise because they’ll work your glutes, hamstrings, quadriceps, and calves. Try going down and back the length of the court. You could also do some walking straight leg kicks to stretch the hamstrings.

It’s also important to warm up the core and upper body. Trunk flexion and rotation activate your core and lower back while warming up the spine—and arm circles are a great way to prep your shoulders, chest, and upper back.

The best time to warm up is about 10 to 15 minutes before you play. And while everyone’s needs are different, a good warm-up generally lasts 10 to 15 minutes. You want to make sure it's long enough to get your body ready without causing fatigue before you begin playing.

Note: You can also use warm-up exercises like the ones mentioned above to assess your comfort level after an injury. If you can do them confidently and without pain, you’re likely ready to return to game play.

Post-Game Cooldown

Pickleball is an active sport that can really get your heart rate elevated. After your game, it can be tempting to just walk off the court and get on with your day. But a cooldown is important to allow your body to gradually transition from intense physical activity to a state of rest.

Gentle exercises like walking reduce your heart rate in a controlled manner. Try walking a few laps at a leisurely pace around the courts after a match.

Once you’ve lowered your heart rate with some gentle movement, it’s a great time to incorporate some static stretches. When performed consistently, static stretching helps combat the muscular tightness that can occur after strenuous activities like pickleball. Plus, it can increase flexibility which can help reduce the risk of injury in the long run.

With static stretching, you want to hold each stretch for 20 to 30 seconds. Avoid bouncing, and remember to breathe deeply and continuously through each stretch. Be sure to stretch the muscles you used in the game, focusing on the:

  • Shoulders
  • Forearms
  • Hamstrings
  • Calves
  • Hips and inner thighs

Consistently taking just 5 to 10 minutes to cool down after a game can go a long way in helping reduce your future risk of injury.

Additional Pickleball Safety Precautions

So far we’ve talked about treating and preventing injuries during play. But there are a few more safety precautions to consider to maintain an injury-free pickleball performance.

First, consider the court. Before any game, make sure the court is thoroughly dry, and inspect it for cracks or surface discrepancies that might trip you. While you’re at it, review the court surroundings as well. Make note of any obstacles like bleachers, light posts, bags, or benches nearby. These obstructions can present as unexpected hazards when you’re focused on the game and chasing after a ball.

Next, communicate with your teammates and opponents. On each shot, identify who is going to hit the ball to help avoid collisions and confusion on the court. And be sure to call out—and even yell to stop the point—if any obstacles like a stray pickleball enter the court.

Third, make sure you have proper equipment, especially footwear. Consider wearing court-specific shoes that provide traction and support the lateral movements pivotal in pickleball.

Fourth, don’t forget to hydrate! Bring a water bottle and drink frequently to avoid dehydration.

Finally, understand and respect your body's limits. While back-to-back matches or diving for that ball can be tempting, it's wise to pace yourself, take breaks, and play within your physical capabilities.

Pickleball is a game of joy, strategy, and camaraderie. Playing smart and practicing these techniques can help you stay safe, injury-free, and enjoy every moment on the court.

If you are a Sword member, you can learn more about pickleball-specific exercises in Academy. Academy is available to active Sword members via the mobile app for iOS and Android.

If you’re not yet a member—check if you're eligible through your employer or health plan.

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