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How a 35-Year-Old Dad Almost Died Playing Pickleball


Pickleball is a physically rigorous sport, but most participants don’t expect it to be deadly. Unfortunately, though, it nearly was for one 35-year-old dad from Missouri. His shocking story made waves when it hit the New York Post, and it offers a reminder that safety should always come first. Whether you’re a newbie to the game or a seasoned professional, it’s important to understand the risks of playing pickleball so you can implement a plan for safety.

Risks Associated With Playing Pickleball

When you think about the most dangerous sports in the world, you probably think about the risk of brain injuries from football or the lack of oxygen that mountain climbers face. Much like tennis, participants in pickleball serve the ball with a paddle, but the game takes place on a smaller court and with lighter equipment. This doesn’t sound like a recipe for risk, but unfortunately certain dangers can lurk anywhere.

Indeed, playing pickleball comes with its own set of liabilities that players must be aware of. One physical therapist who treats pickleball players says that the sport commonly causes injuries such as:

  • Achilles’ tears
  • Herniated discs
  • Strained muscles
  • Epicondylitis
  • Rotator cuff injuries

While all of these injuries are undoubtedly uncomfortable, none of them is likely to be lethal in isolation. The question remains — how could this sport cause a near-death experience for a player?

As is the case with most active sports, pickleball demands that users move quickly and make sudden movements. In some cases, this can put a player at risk of very serious injuries — including those that may threaten the player’s life. Although this is rare, it’s essential for pickleball players to understand the risk and take steps to move safely when playing this sport.

How One Pickleball-Playing Dad Nearly Died

On November 23, 2022, one pickleball enthusiast discovered first-hand how treacherous any sport can be. Joel Hentrich, a fit and healthy 35-year-old dad, was playing the game with friends when he turned his head quickly and suddenly felt a disquieting sensation. According to the report in the New York Post, he described it as “a pop in the back of [his] neck” that he heard and felt internally. The sensation was followed by a medical emergency that could have cost him his life.

The incident included the immediate onset of several symptoms, alerting Hentrich to the severity of the injury. These symptoms included:

  • Changes in his vision
  • Debilitating vertigo
  • Inability to stand and walk
  • Extreme nausea and vomiting
  • Tingling on one side of the body

Because of his work as a nurse, Hentrich recognized these symptoms as the signs of a stroke — and he knew it was imperative to act fast. His friends quickly transported him to the emergency room where he informed staff that he was likely experiencing a stroke. They jumped into action and administered a CT scan, which revealed a diagnosis that was even more frightening.

While playing pickleball, Hentrich had burst an artery and impaired the portion of his brain responsible for controlling movement and coordination. This triggered a cascade of three consecutive strokes in his brain’s lower cerebellum.

Hentrich said that he had previously noticed a sensation that felt like a pinched nerve in his neck, but it went away, so he wasn’t concerned. It’s still not entirely clear how the movement of playing caused this life-threatening injury, but it illuminates the importance of caution when playing pickleball.

How To Prevent Injuries During Pickleball

If you’re a pickleball enthusiast, you might be startled by this story — and rightfully so. Professionals seem to agree, though, that Hentrich’s case was a freak accident rather than an indictment of risk that’s inherent to pickleball. Still, players should take steps to avoid injuries and ensure that they’re playing pickleball safely. The best strategies to achieve this include:

  • Stretch before playing a game
  • Engage in exercise to improve flexibility
  • Invest in strength training
  • Stay hydrated before and during games

In addition to these steps, pickleball players should pay close attention to any signs of potential injuries during and after a game.

Ruptured arteries aren’t a common occurrence, but injuries such as epicondylitis are. This injury, also known as tennis elbow, occurs when the tendons in the elbow become swollen due to overuse. In some cases, the tendons may even tear or sustain permanent damage. Pickleball players can prevent this type of injury by stretching the arms and wrists prior to a game.

Stretching in general can shield athletes from potential injury when they are playing pickleball. Exercises such as the forward lunge — done by kneeling on one knee and lunging forward — stretch the muscles and tendons that you’ll use the most in a pickleball game. Stretching prevents injuries because it expands the fibers in your muscles, reducing their rigidity and allowing you to move more easily.

Injury Red Flags To Look for During Pickleball

Even if you take the time to stretch and exercise before you start playing pickleball, it’s possible that an injury will still occur. Even the most skilled athletes suffer from sprains and strains. It’s important to look out for the red flags that may indicate you or your opponent has sustained an injury, especially symptoms that mirror those that Hentrich experienced.

Symptoms such as the following indicate a medical emergency:

  • Sudden confusion
  • Loss of coordination
  • Difficulty speaking
  • Numbness or tingling

In most cases, playing pickleball won’t expose you to any risk greater than a potential muscle injury. Still, you should look out for symptoms of sprains and strains:

  • A limb suddenly feels tender.
  • Joints are weak and painful.
  • You see swelling appear.
  • The injured area is bruised.
  • Muscles start to spasm or cramp.

These signs are a likely indication of a muscle injury. These injuries can be painful, but they typically won’t endanger your long-term health if you treat them properly. This means you should stop playing pickleball as soon as you suspect an injury and seek treatment to start your recovery.

Treating Injuries That Occur During Pickleball

If you realize you’ve been injured while playing pickleball, you need to halt the game and get treatment sooner rather than later. Continuing to play after a sprain or strain can put you at risk of permanently injuring the muscle in question. It’s important to wait until pain, swelling, and other symptoms subside before you return to the court.

You can expedite this recovery by treating the injury carefully. You can treat most minor muscle injuries at home, but always consult a professional if you have any concerns. Medical professionals will likely advise you to apply ice to the injured area and apply compression to increase blood flow. Ice is helpful because it can decrease inflammation and alleviate pain. Compression is helpful because it decreases swelling. Other effective at-home remedies include Epsom salt baths and gentle massages.

There are some instances when you should definitely seek out medical attention after an injury. If the pain and swelling of a sprain does not subside within two weeks, or if these symptoms worsen, you should see an orthopedic specialist to seek further treatment. Furthermore, if your injury substantially inhibits your mobility or quality of life, it’s a good idea to seek treatment so that you can recover as soon as possible.

Investing in the Right Pickleball Equipment

Investing in the right equipment is essential if you’re serious about playing pickleball and avoiding injuries. When compared to other sports, the supply list for pickleball is relatively brief, but investing in the right gear is imperative. In addition to paddles and balls, you should pay close attention to the pickleball shoes that you choose. If you’re playing pickleball without the right shoes, you may be uncomfortable at best, and you could increase your risk of injury at worst.

The ideal pair of pickleball shoes will be lightweight, flexible, and comfortably cushioned. You should also look for footwear that features a durable outsole and shock protection so that you can move with ease across the court. Shoes with these features can help you avoid injuries because they absorb the force that you generate with your movement. This shields your joints and muscles from impact that may increase the risk of injury.

Other gear such as nutritional supplements can help you retain your strength and build muscle mass. Accessories such as a massage roller can be helpful, too, to relieve tension in your muscles and throughout your body. Tools like this are great to use both before and after a game because they can prepare you for the physical demands of pickleball and help you recover after a strenuous match.

Playing Pickleball Can Be Safe and Fun

Playing pickleball is an increasingly popular activity. It’s a great way to exercise, socialize, and engage in some friendly competition. If you aren’t careful, though, you may be putting yourself at an increased risk of injury — and in most cases, this is avoidable. Pickleball players can learn from Joel Hentrich and vigilantly monitor any signs of injuries or medical emergencies. Invest in the right pickleball gear at Pickleball Portal to ensure you’re playing safely.


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About Dan Langston

With experience in the ecotourism industry and time well spent as a fly fishing guide in the remote absaroka mountain range for 6 years, Dan brings a unique perspective on customer service to the digital world. As the operator, Dan is now committed to revitalizing Pickleball Portal and plans to build a support system for content creators and provide helpful information for the pickleball community. dan@pickleballportal.com

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