Pickleball Boom Nets New Healthcare Opportunities

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As pickleball’s popularity has risen, injuries have soared, triggering gloomy reports of how much these injuries are costing the US medical system; by some estimates, the cost was $377 million in 2023 alone. 

Some in the healthcare system, however, are choosing to view those statistics as an opportunity to seize. They are forging new partnerships with the pickleball community, aiming to educate players about injury prevention, provide care when needed, and foster long-term relationships with a new population of patients. In some cases, the pickleball community is reaching out to healthcare organizations first.

Among the examples:

  • Cedars-Sinai Kerlan-Jobe Institute (CS-KJI), in Los Angeles, California, is now the sports medicine and orthopedic partner of the California Pickleball Association.
  • Humana, the Louisville, Kentucky–based health insurance company, has set up several partnerships with pickleball organizations, both recreational and professional.
  • Select Medical, a physical therapy provider, is partnering with the Professional Pickleball Association.
  • The New Mexico and Arizona Pickleball Association is applying for a community grant from the Parkinson’s Foundation, seeking funds to provide equipment for an instructor who teaches the game to those with the neurologic disorder.

Effective in January, CS-KJI became the sports medicine and orthopedic partner for the California Pickleball Association (CAPA)’s 2024 tournaments. The institute, with several locations throughout Southern California, is known for the diagnosis, treatment, and prevention of sports injuries and illness and provides medical care for numerous professional sports teams as well as athletes.

photo of Robert Alvarado
Robert Alvarado

“The partnership affords the opportunity to meet the growing needs of this active population, and in return, participants have access to world-class medical education and care,” said Robert Alvarado, director of business development at the institute. 

The institute “will provide injury prevention [information] through educational resources such as wellness tips, blogs and strategic email campaigns. In addition, we are planning two to three virtual webinars to CAPA members to tune in and listen to a presentation along with a Q & A from one of our sports medicine doctors.” The healthcare providers will also be onsite at tournaments to provide support and promote the services to those attending, he said.

Sports medicine clinics operate weekly and care for injured athletes directly or from referrals from other physicians, Alvarado said. 

Angus Lee, CEO and co-founder of CAPA, said that the institute is a platinum sponsor and will provide the prize money for all eight planned tournaments this year in addition to injury prevention education and access to clinic services. The tournaments, he said, are for all levels of players. The prize money total is confidential, he said.

photo of Angus Lee
Angus Lee

Humana has four sponsorship agreements with pickleball associations: the Association of Pickleball Players, the DC Pickleball Team (Major League), the Professional Pickleball Association Tour, and US Senior Pickleball. 

The agreements vary, but for US Senior Pickleball, which includes recreational and competitive players, Humana will be the presenting sponsors of the organization’s championship series event and host clinics. 

Select Medical, which provides physical therapy services in 39 states, is entering its third year of partnership with the Professional Pickleball Association (PPA) Tour. 

“We are the exclusive provider of physical therapy and sports medicine for the PPA Tour,” said Shelly Eckenroth, a spokesperson for Select Medical. “Our physical therapists and athletic trainers provide on-site care for pros and amateurs at PPA tournaments, and also help players of all levels and ages both prevent and recover from injury in our 1950 physical therapy clinics across the US” Select Medical also offers complimentary consultations, she said. 

The organization declined to cite the financial terms of the sports partnerships. 

Emerging Partnerships

Movement that incorporates aerobic activity, stretching, and strengthening is encouraged for those with Parkinson’s disease, and pickleball advocates say their sport can help. 

Larry “Bud” Lite is president of the New Mexico and Arizona Pickleball Association, which has a grant program to help schools, after-school programs, first responders, and others gain access to the game.

When a pickleball teacher approached him to see whether the organization could provide equipment so she could focus on teaching those with Parkinson’s disease, Lite agreed to help. Now, he is applying for a community grant from the Parkinson’s Foundation to provide pickleball equipment for teaching the game to those with the disease. 

Could smaller practices, even a solo practice, set up similar partnerships? “The sport is growing the fastest at the grass roots level and it may be of interest for other practices to seek opportunities, and partner with a local organized league or recreational group,” Alvarado said. 

photo of Bruce Berry
Dr Bruce Berry

The business opportunities for clinicians lie in treating minor mishaps because hospitals and emergency rooms handle more serious cases, said Bruce Berry, MD, a primary care physician, clinical assistant professor of medicine at the Medical College of Wisconsin, in Milwaukee, and an avid pickleball player who has cared for players with injuries. 

In Wisconsin, for instance, a private group of orthopedists started a walk-in, orthopedic injury–only clinic, Berry said. Although the clinic treats all comers, pickleball players are likely to be on the list. “I think establishing a relationship with a patient for pickleball injuries can lead to getting their future business,” Berry said. 

Will patients use such services? At a recent pickleball session at a park in Glendale, California, players gave the idea a qualified thumbs-up. “I think it’s a great idea,” said Bert Dana, age 70, a player visiting from Montreal. “It’s brilliant,” Kelly Paulsen, age 58, said of the idea. Would she make use of a clinic catering to pickleball players? “If it was affordable, sure,” she said. Likewise, Ray Vasquez, age 66, a USA Pickleball Association ambassador and organizer of the Glendale group, said that his use of the healthcare services “would depend on if it is covered by my insurance.”

Injury Scorecard

Overuse accounts for some injuries, Berry said, such as aches and pains. Pickleball elbow, pulled muscles, and fractures also occur frequently. 

photo of Michael Gerhardt
Dr Michael Gerhardt

Muscle and tendon strains are sprains are common, and less often, tendon ruptures such as Achilles’ tears, are seen, said Michael Gerhardt, MD, a sports medicine specialist and orthopedic surgeon at CS-KJI and an avid pickleball player. 

In an analysis of 300 pickleball-related injuries treated at US emergency departments from 2001 to 2017, players aged 50 years or older accounted for nearly 91% of patients. Strains, sprains, and fractures were most common. In another analysis of 28,984 pickleball injuries that occurred in players aged 60 years or older from 2010 to 2019, sprains, strains, fractures, and contusions predominated.

Among all ages, the mentality among avid players is “you don’t rest,” Berry said. That obsession, he said, can trigger injuries. Berry wrote A Doctor’s Guide to Treatment and Prevention of Pickleball Injuries with his son, Andrew Berry, DO, and contributes a regular column to Medscape on the topic.

Warming up properly can help minimize injuries, shared Berry, although he finds that it’s not commonly done or done correctly. Gerhardt agreed: “Because court reservations can be tight, the tendency is to arrive to the courts and want to get straight into playing games rather than warming up for proper amount of time.” Yet, he said, stretching and warming up could translate to fewer injuries.

Educating people about preventing injuries is good, Berry said, “but I don’t know if you can make money off that.”

Kathleen Doheny is a journalist in Los Angeles. 

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