For anyone familiar with retirement communities, the rise in the popularity of pickleball is nothing new. The tennis-like game which was played by 3-4 million (mostly older) Americans in the late 2010s, has exploded in popularity to nearly 9 million US players in 2022 and an estimated 23 million players in 2023 (according to an analysis by UBS).

But the game’s unexpected jump in popularity has come with a cost to health care plans: A rise in pickleball-related injuries.

The growing popularity of the game (which is already responsible for tens of thousands of injuries annually) is expected to result in $377M in medical injuries this year (UBS analysis). Unsurprisingly, most injuries are to players’ joints and are treated with outpatient procedures and care. Since the game is widely enjoyed among seniors, most injuries occur in those over 60-years-old, and Medicare has had to deal with a disproportionate amount of the costs so far. However, as the game draws in younger players, private health plans are expected to see more direct costs from the sport.

Despite all the headlines written concerning these medical costs, we shouldn’t get carried away. Pickleball isn’t a particularly dangerous or risky sport to play. It might not be as easy on the body as golf or swimming, but it’s hardly like playing basketball or soccer. In fact, it’s favored by seniors because it’s gentler than other racket sports (e.g., tennis and racquetball). And while more pickleball inevitably means more injuries, it also suggests that more people are getting exercise and staying active, potentially lowering the long-term health costs of participants being sedentary.

How should health plans handle the “risks” of pickleball (or any other exercise fad)?

Obviously, a plan doesn’t want to deal with the cost of increased injuries, but it also can’t go around banning participants from sports—nor should it want to discourage something that gets participants exercising. A plan also can’t offset the risks financially because it’s impossible to adjust premiums quickly enough for such a specific risk.

What is a real option for health plans?

One of the goals of any health care plan should be finding ways to take advantage of the things that participants are excited to do anyway. That means supporting the activity in a way that lowers its risks and increases its benefits. For pickleball, that might mean doing some research on the most common types of injuries and providing participants with education on how to avoid them. A health plan doesn’t need to scare participants away from the sport. Instead, it can provide them with stretching guides, strength-building exercises, and advice that can help reduce health risks while still encouraging the exercise the game provides.

Communication Considerations

Ultimately, taking advantage of the people’s ever-changing interests comes down to awareness and good communication. For a company, this might be done through the health plan or through its wellness resources. The plan should keep an eye on current trends in diet, exercise and wellness, actively speak to the general health implications of those habits and be ready to direct participants to more information. Plans don’t have to provide medical advice (and shouldn’t try), but a few helpful tips and reminders might be enough to keep a participant’s new hobby from ending with a new hobble.

Jonas Leyrer, CEBS

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In his free time, Jonas enjoys playing board games, running and watching professional soccer matches.

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