Back Surgery Patient Answers Is Pickleball Bad For Your Back?

Pickleball is a great sport to stay active for anyone who is retired and looking to stay in shape and keep moving.  But regardless of age, pickleball can take a toll on anyone’s body.

So, when I began my pickleball journey over 7 years ago and as someone who’s had serious back issues for over 25 years, I asked myself, “Is pickleball going to be bad for my back?”

As someone who’s had chronic lower back problems and two back surgeries, I can confidently tell you that playing pickleball has not made my chronic back issues worse. But, I’m extremely careful with my back and do not head to the courts when my back has been through a muscle spasm episode. 

In this article, I’ll share my story about playing pickleball with lower back issues and tell you if playing pickleball has made my chronic lower back issues worse or better.  I’ll even share with you what sport I gave up to continue my pickleball career.  

I’ll also give you some tips on what I’ve learned to keep my back healthy enough to keep playing pickleball. 

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02/22/2024 04:31 pm GMT

Intro to Pickleball, Its Rise in Popularity and the Risk it Poses

Pickleball is America’s fastest-growing sport and is commonly described as a blend of tennis, badminton, and table tennis.  Essentially, if tennis, ping pong, and badminton had a baby, it would be pickleball.  

It has attracted a broad demographic of dedicated, fanatic players ranging from young athletic college players to seniors in their 60s and 70s (and even 80s) looking to stay active in retirement.  

Yet, this entertaining pastime brings its share of risks. Quick twists, lateral turns, and abrupt “start and stop” movements can cause serious injuries. In fact, a recent UBS study shows that pickleball has accounted for 67,000 ER visits, 9,000 surgical procedures, and over 377 million dollars in healthcare costs in 2023 alone! 

Yikes!

But, I’m here to tell you that with proper technique, warming up, and stretching, you can mitigate the risk that pickleball poses.  

My Pickleball Experience After Two Back Surgeries

I’m 46 years old, play competitive pickleball on a regular basis, and have had chronic back pain for most of my adult life.  In fact, I’ve had back surgery twice.  I had two laminectomies at the L4/L5 spine – eight years apart.

My first surgery was when I was 18 and then again at age 26.  From there, I’ve had to deal with chronic back issues for most of my adult life through my 30s and 40s.  It comes and goes but I’m not in constant pain; which is a blessing.

My back issues are, at times, terrible but, I also realize it could be worse and that other people have way worse back problems than I do.  So, some perspective is always a good thing. 

But has pickleball made my back issues worse?  No.  

While pickleball hasn’t caused more back pain for me, I am mindful of my movements on the court.  Especially when it comes to reaching for shots at the kitchen line.  

As I get older, I’ve learned to make a concerted effort to know when to go “all out” for a ball and when not to.  

The Sport I Gave Up For Pickleball

It’s also worth noting that I’ve given up my previous favorite sport, basketball, in favor of pickleball.  I was willing to replace basketball with pickleball because I knew without a doubt that even casual “old-man” basketball leagues would do far more harm to my back than pickleball.  

Despite my back issues, I can play pickleball for an hour and a half and know that I’ve not screwed up my back muscles or vertebrae.  I cannot say the same after an hour and a half of basketball.  

For me, the jumping and sprinting in basketball are more harmful to my back than the start and stop motion in pickleball.  So for me, pickleball is easier on my back than basketball.  

pickkleball

The Science Behind Back Pain

Back pain, especially lower back pain is a very common affliction and often emerges due to a combination of physical factors and lifestyle habits. In pickleball, the game’s dynamic nature can lead to twist, turn, and abrupt stop movements, potentially overstraining muscles or spinal ligaments, and causing discomfort. 

Bulging or ruptured disks, a consequence of physical stress can press on nerves, eliciting pain. Degenerative diseases like arthritis or osteoporosis may complicate the issue and contribute to lower back discomfort. 

Did you know that mental health manifestations such as stress can also intensify muscle tension and lead to back pain? 

Moreover, lifestyle habits like smoking, overeating, and living a sedentary lifestyle can lead to back problems or exacerbate an already bad back. Recognizing these causes is the first step in targeting key preventative measures to protect the lower back while enjoying activities like pickleball.

Can Pickleball Cause Back Pain?

Unfortunately, I have firsthand experience on this topic.  Just last year, I had an episode where I threw my back out and it locked up while I was playing pickleball.  

Now, you’re probably scratching your head because I just spent a few paragraphs above explaining how pickleball hasn’t been bad for lower back issues and now I’m admitting that I threw my back during a session of pickleball.

So, technically speaking pickleball did induce back pain for me that day.  But there is more to it.

I showed up to the courts that day already feeling a little twinge in my back.  In addition, I hadn’t been doing my daily stretching routine along with all the necessary exercises I’ve learned in physical therapy to maintain a healthy back.  

Unfortunately, I showed up to play feeling “tight” and not feeling 100% confident in my back and it backfired.  

10 minutes into a match that I never warmed up for, I went to launch myself forward to get to a soft drop shot that hit 4 feet ahead of me and my back locked up!  My back was not loose, not warmed up and not ready for any quick-twitch movements.

I dropped my paddle and fell to the court in agony. I had to slowly straighten my lower back, get my gear and limp to the car.  My day was done.  And my days of playing pickleball were done for about 6 months.  

Why Did My Back Lock Up During Pickleball?

For 2 months leading up to that episode, I had neglected the daily rituals that have helped my back stay strong and in the end, I paid the price.  

In the end, it didn’t matter what sport I was going to play that day.  My back wasn’t gonna have it.  I could have chosen to go for a job and my back would have locked up.

So, in the end I feel like pickleball didn’t exactly cause my back pain episode that day, I did.  

After that episode, I’ve been through another round of physical therapy and two cortisone shots and have played without any issues since.  But I’ve been diligent about my daily back exercises and routine ever since.  And I always stretch before I play.  

Stretching is so important to avoiding pickleball injuries.  Speaking of stretching, now let’s talk about how to avoid back injuries on the pickleball court.

pickleball

How to Avoid Back Issues When Playing Pickleball

I’ve been playing pickleball for over a year now without any back-related problems or pain.  So what have I done to avoid having back issues while playing pickleball lately?

Well, for starters, I am habitual about my daily stretching and exercise routines. I’ve learned through 6 different rounds of physical therapy over 10 years that stretching is key.

And I NEVER just jump into a game of pickleball without a proper warm-up and some stretching.  In fact, I don’t just stretch before a game of pickleball.  I stretch every day no matter what.

For me, the single biggest factor in playing pickleball without back pain is stretching every day.  Whether I play pickleball or not.

And for me, stretching not just my back but my legs has been crucial.

My daily stretching routine includes my hamstrings, calves, and quads but also my lower back. I even include some self-traction and lower back adjustments I’ve learned to do at home from a chiropractor.

This stretching along with full body muscle building with light weights has done wonders for my back health. And it has kept me going on the pickleball court without incident. 

Doing my workout and stretching routine 5-6 days a week has been life-changing. I even stretch on days I’m not playing pickleball, and it’s been a game-changer for me.  

The Physical Impact of Pickleball

The impact of pickleball on your body can depend on a lot of factors like your age, and body type. Other personal health-related issues play a role too.

To get the most out of pickleball, it’s important to understand its physical impact. To ensure a safe and enjoyable experience you must also know you’re own limits.

The physical demands pickleball places on your body require quick-twitch reflexes from both your upper and lower body. You’ll need to be able to execute quick twists and turns but also sudden stops and starts.

In short, these sudden movements and constant “start/stop” reactions will put stress on your legs, ankles, Achilles heel, and lower back.  Over time, muscles and joints will experience wear and tear.  

But proper form, technique, posture, and stretching can make a huge difference! It can also mean the difference between injury from all the physical demands or just a healthy workout.  

Regularly playing without proper technique or body conditioning can put players, particularly newcomers, at risk of pickleball-related injuries.

Health Benefits Of Pickleball

Despite, pickleball’s physical implications, there is a brighter side. When played properly, the sport serves as a low-impact workout, improving cardiovascular health, hand-eye coordination, flexibility, and muscular strength. In essence, this sport offers a full-body exercise that positively impacts overall health and well-being. 

Research shows significant improvements in cardio-respiratory fitness, blood pressure, and cholesterol levels in participants who play pickleball regularly.

Furthermore, pickleball comes with numerous cognitive benefits. The need for strategy, precision, and focus can enhance cognitive skills and slow their natural age-related decline. Its social aspect also provides a unique platform for players to connect and stay mentally, physically, and socially active. 

In my opinion, we must be mindful of the potential physical strains the sport will inherently place on our bodies. But we must also not lose sight of the rewards pickleball gives us for both our physical and mental health.

pickleball

Are Lower Back Issues the Most Common Injury In Pickleball?

No, while back issues can occur during pickleball, the most common pickleball injury is wrist sprains and breaks.

This is because people often fall during pickleball and try to catch themselves.  When you catch yourself, you run the risk of spraining your wrist from the impact of your body weight. You may even break your writst.

If someone lobs a ball over your head and you begin to backpedal, be careful! Tripping and falling backward is the most common way to sprain your wrist.  

The angle of your wrist when catching yourself backward is the perfect receipt for a serious wrist injury.  So be careful.

Other Helpful FAQs

Is Pickleball Worse For Your Back Than Tennis?

Having played both tennis in high school and pickleball for a lot of my adult life, I can tell you that playing tennis is much harder on my back than pickleball.

Tennis is harder on my back because of the violent nature of an overhead tennis serve.  I tend to put power behind my serve in tennis and that motion puts a lot of stress on my back. More so than any shot I attempt in pickleball.  I could dial down but that’s hard for me to do.  

I also feel stress on my back when running laterally at a full sprint in tennis while in pickleball the lateral movement, while still quick, is shorter due to the smaller court.  

Tennis requires sprinting at times while pickleball just requires short bursts of speed.  These short bursts are not as hard on my back compared to tennis.

Is Pickleball Worse For Your Back Than Golf?

This one is easy for me.  I’ve thrown my back out playing golf and spent a good 4 days recovering from muscle spasms.

Why is golf harder on my back than tennis?  Because of the twisting nature of a golf swing. Golf swings at high speeds put a bigger load of stress on my lower back than any shot in pickleball.  

Playing a round of golf takes a toll on my lower back. This is because of the twisting and wrenching that is needed to generate power.

Pickleball doesn’t require the same violent twist and therefore is easier on my back. 

Is Pickleball Bad For Your Back – Conclusion

In closing, thank you for letting me share my pickleball story as it relates to my back and my back health.

Overall, if you’re taking care of your back and doing the proper stretching regularly regardless of whether you’re playing pickleball that day or not, then pickleball is not going to be hard on your back. Having proper posture on the court is also wise so that you’re not adding stress to your lower back just by how you’re standing on the court.  Activate those abs and don’t bend from your lower back exclusively!

Combine that with listening to your body and knowing when to be done playing will allow you to play within your limits and not overdo it.  This is what I’ve been doing over the last year and playing pickleball has not made my chronic back issues worse.  

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