Pain Management

This Low-Impact (and Fun!) Sport Eased One Woman’s Chronic Arthritis Pain

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Arthritis pain left Mary-Pat Marzoli, 58, sitting on the sidelines of life — until she discovered a fun way to get moving that restored her youthful energy and mobility!

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She probably thinks there’s something wrong with me, Mary-Pat Marzoli thought as she fidgeted anxiously and chatted with a neighbor in the grocery store.

“Standing in one place for a long period had become difficult due to unbearable arthritis pain in my hip,” says Mary-Pat. “To try to alleviate the discomfort, I found myself shifting my weight from foot to foot, seeming to squirm as though I was antisocial and ready to ‘make a break for it.’

“That day in the grocery store was humiliating. Ordinarily, I love chatting with neighbors, but simple interactions were becoming nearly impossible. Instead of being able to enjoy catching up with a friend, thoughts of trying to relieve my discomfort swirled around my head.

Missing Out on Life

“I was diagnosed with arthritis in my hip about five years ago. In addition to making everyday actions like shopping or cooking dinner difficult, it was threatening my monogramming business. It had become nearly impossible to stand at the sewing machines for more than a few minutes without needing a break or to shift positions — something I wasn’t always able to do when working on a project. Many times, I’d be in tears as I stood at the machines, pushing myself to work through the pain.

“I started sitting out of life more and more to try to prevent painful flare-ups. But, ironically, avoiding standing didn’t help! The more I sat, the worse the pain and stiffness in my hip grew. It started feeling like I’d never find relief or be able to enjoy ‘little things’ like watching a movie with my family.

“My doctor recommended cortisone injections and prescription-strength pain medicine to ease the pain. I tried both for a short time, but stopped due to the side effects of steroids and because I didn’t want to take pain medication long-term.

“I had always been very active and rarely stood still, so as time went on, I started feeling depressed. My pain and lack of activity made me feel so old, but I wasn’t ready to sit in a rocker on the sidelines! Nevertheless, the hip pain was taking over my life.

Relief at Last

“Soon after, my husband and I were on vacation, when we saw a group of people playing a game that looked a bit like tennis. I inquired and learned they were playing pickleball. I was intrigued. Then a few weeks later, a friend in my neighborhood reached out to tell me she was putting together a pickleball group. I was excited at the opportunity to join.

“I called my orthopedic surgeon, who said experimenting with low-impact activities like pickleball was a good way for me to be more active without causing additional pain. Because I work from home, I was also delighted at the added benefit of socializing.

“I wasn’t sure what to expect, and I was a little worried that it would hurt. But as we started, the pregame stretching felt good on my hip. And being in the fresh air, laughing, and learning to play provided an instant mood boost! That night, I slept better than I had in years. The next day, I was elated to wake up and realize the hip stiffness I had grown used to feeling was greatly reduced.

Mary-Pat Marzoli with pickleball paddle
Mary-Pat MarzoliStreetfly Studio Photography

“I was hooked! I couldn’t wait to get back on the court. We played once a week, and week after week, my stiffness lessened. I found myself practicing my swing around the house and stretching to stay limber. I no longer needed to shift my weight when standing. Instead, I looked forward to gabbing with the girls before or after a match. Work also became easier.

“When the pandemic hit, we didn’t play for several months, but now we’re playing while being socially distant outside. Because pickleball doesn’t involve too much running, we comfortably play while wearing masks.

“Playing pickleball with my friends definitely puts me in a positive frame of mind and helps manage not only the physical pain and stiffness, but the emotional effects of living with arthritis. It’s also affirmed my need to keep moving, because sitting on the sidelines was physically — and mentally — painful.

“My doctor is thrilled I feel less pain. I love knowing that I get to be outdoors with my friends and that I can enjoy moving again.”

How Pickleball Heals Arthritic Joints

“Any activity, no matter how small, can be helpful for women with arthritis,” says Andrew Haas, M.D., an orthopedic surgeon and sports medicine physician at West Medical Group in Westchester, New York. “Exercise wards off stiffness, improves flexibility, and maintains the strength of the muscles around the joint, providing greater support.” Indeed, low-impact exercise like pickleball, a cross between tennis and badminton, has been shown to reduce pain due to conditions like arthritis by 39 percent. Adds Dr. Haas, “A sport like pickleball provides strengthening and increased joint motion, as well as balance training and side-to-side stabilization, which can improve daily function.”

To get the perks, follow Mary-Pat Marzoli’s lead and try playing pickleball with friends. You can find a nearby court on Places2Play.org, or check your local park (many have turned tennis courts into pickleball courts), then grab a pickleball paddle and ball (which is similar to a Wiffle ball) at a sporting goods store or online (Amazon has lots of options!). The rules are similar to Ping-Pong: The ball must bounce once before you return it, and games are typically played to 11 points, but just volleying back and forth will be beneficial for reducing pain. — Alyssa Sybertz

This story originally appeared in our print magazine.

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