Injuries and Their Prevention in Racquetball
Leading an active lifestyle brings with it massive benefits to your physical and mental health. However, any physical activity or sport carries with it the risk of injuries— including racquetball.
The most common racquetball injuries are relatively minor. Every now and then, you might run into a wall or get hit with a racquet. Usually, those things only result in some bruised flesh and bruised ego. But more serious problems can arise.
Shoulder injuries from repeated swinging motions can develop over time, and the rapid changes in direction inherent in the game can lead to something like a high ankle sprain.
The good news is that nearly every common racquetball injury is either preventable or treatable.
High Speed Impact
Racquetball is a high intensity sport— that’s one of the reasons it’s so fun. Part of that intensity comes from the speed of the ball as it flies around the court.
Professional players can routinely hit the ball at speeds exceeding 100 mph, and while casual players may not be able to generate that kind of pace, most people can generate swings that send the ball between 60 and 80 mph.
Most of the time, if you miss with your swing and the ball hits you, it will sting for a bit, and you may see a welt develop. But every now and then, the ball will make contact with your face— and if it hits one of your eyes, you could be hurt in a very bad way.
We have an instinctual reaction to close our eyes when an object approaches them, but a racquetball travels so fast that by the time you’re aware of it coming towards your eye, it can be too late.
Racquetballs have been known to cause corneal abrasions and even result in the loss of sight in the affected eye.
Luckily, there is a simple step to prevent this that every player should already be doing (but that many don’t do): wear protective eyewear. It really is that simple. Whenever you go out on the court, wear your eye protection.
And remember, normal glasses are not good enough. They can slide off your face, get knocked off, or get broken while you’re playing. And if a ball comes in at the right angle, it can still hit your eye if you’re only wearing your everyday glasses.
Several manufacturers make safe, affordable eyewear for racquetball. And you can even get them with your prescription if you don’t wear contact lenses.
While the gameplay of racquetball is very dynamic and strategic in terms of shot and serve placement, the physical mechanics of the sport don’t really change much from shot to shot.
Your forehand and backhand swing mechanics stay fairly consistent no matter what type of shot you’re making. The differences come in the force of the shot and where the ball is hit in relation to your body. For example, a splat shot is hit when the ball is around shin height when you hit it.
With those repeated motions, the risk of injuries from overuse develops. This risk increases when your technique is not ideal and/or the equipment you play with is not suited to your body.
Overuse injuries in the shoulder common to racquetball players include a variety of rotator cuff injuries such as tendonitis, impingement syndrome (where movement of the head of the humerus bone is impeded by swollen tendons), and bursitis in the shoulder.
Lower down the arm, too much wrist movement in your swing, or repeated vibrations from using a racquet with overly tightened strings can result in lateral epicondylalgia— also known as tennis elbow. Since the muscles and tendons in your arms are all connected, your tennis elbow that results from your wrists may cause you pain up and down your arm, not just between your wrist and elbow.
Racquetball players can also experience pain and discomfort in their lower backs from the twisting motion that helps generate power on a shot.
And players that take heavy steps when approaching the ball with a lunge as part of their swing can develop some knee swelling and bursitis around that joint.
Generally speaking, the treatment for these types of injuries is the same. Avoid strenuous activity for the affected area, and engage in rehabilitation exercises that come from your doctor or physical therapist.
Knee and wrist injuries can benefit from RICE: rest, ice, compression, and elevation. Some people recommend wearing a tennis elbow brace to help alleviate that particular ailment. However, it’s important to remember that you still want to move your joints regularly to keep potential scar tissue from forming.
Sometimes treating shoulder injuries can be tricky because the rotator cuff muscles are underneath other muscles in your arm, chest, and back and injuries to your shoulder occasionally manifest as pain in the neck and upper back, similar to a pinched nerve.
That’s why it’s very important to talk to athletic injuries and rehabilitation experts when you hurt yourself. A layperson may not be able to recognize exactly what is happening in their body— especially when the injury is in the shoulder.
Physical therapy for rotator cuff problems is usually enough to fix the issue, but with all of these overuse injuries, extreme cases can develop. When an athlete returns to the court too soon or ignores the pain they are in, they run the risk of developing an extreme case of their injury, which may require a cortisone shot or even surgery.
Fortunately, the care and prevention of athletic injuries like these is fairly simple. The first step is to give yourself a full warm up before you practice or play. The benefits of pregame stretches and calisthenics have been made apparent by many medical studies over the years.
If you need specific warm up exercises because of previous injuries or a medical condition, you can speak to an injury prevention specialist to get a range of injury prevention exercises that you can incorporate into your pre- and post-game routines.
It’s also a wise move to get regular sports physical exam procedures. They help you identify nagging pains and can serve as a great tool for identifying potentially serious problems before they occur.
Another major preventative step you can take is to build proper swing mechanics into your muscle memory and use equipment that is the correct size for your body. You don’t want a racquet that is too heavy or one with a grip that is too large or too small.
Many retailers will have guides for grip size, recommended string tension, and racquet weight on their websites.
Finally, to help prevent overuse injuries, it pays to space out your games and engage in other workouts besides racquetball. Alternating between strength training and flexibility from one day to the next helps keep your muscles, tendons, and ligaments lithe, strong, and reactive.
Varying your workouts will also help keep your body balanced. Sometimes racquet sports players can throw their bodies out of whack by focusing too much on working out their dominant sides. You don’t want to work your racquet arm while ignoring the other side of your body.
Because racquetball involves huge bursts of movement and sudden changes in direction, ankle injuries are always a risk. The most common ankle injuries you’ll find in racquetball are sprains and high ankle sprains.
Common ankle sprains happen on racquetball courts most often when a player takes a step to the side and rolls their ankle. You’ll notice swelling, soreness, and occasionally bruising on the outside of your ankle when this happens.
A high ankle sprain is most often caused by a sudden turning or twisting motion while changing direction. This kind of sprain affects the ligaments that keep your tibia and fibula from drifting too far apart when your foot makes contact with the ground while running or walking.
Recognizing high ankle sprains can be difficult because there is not typically a great deal of swelling associated with them. So it is up to the athlete to recognize that pain running up through their leg from the ankle that flares on every step may be a high ankle sprain.
For both of these types of ankle injuries, the previously mentioned RICE technique is recommended. Be aware that high ankle sprains take longer to heal than common sprains. It can be very frustrating to rehab a high ankle sprain because it doesn’t have the outward presentation of a common sprain. Sometimes athletes feel like they ought to rush back because their injury doesn’t look bad to them.
But handling these injuries takes time. Don’t rush your return. Listen to your body and be patient.
Much like with overuse injuries, strength and flexibility training off the court can help prevent sprains and, in case one happens anyway, limit the severity of the injury.
Practicing your footwork will also help. A common mistake made by inexperienced players is turning their whole body when moving laterally on the court. The most effective technique for lateral movement on a racquetball court does not involve crossing your feet.
By keeping your weight on the balls of your feet with your knees bent when preparing to move and taking sidesteps that bring your feet together before moving in the direction you want to go, you greatly reduce the risk of the twisting steps that cause high ankle sprains.
Know the Risks, But Don’t Let Them Scare You
Injuries happen. Luckily, typical racquetball injuries are not severe. Athletes overcoming injury suffered on the racquetball court is common.
But by practicing proper footwork and swing mechanics as well as incorporating warm ups and varied workouts when you aren’t playing, you greatly reduce your risk of injury.