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How Do Athletes Manage Physical Pain?

Updated on February 15, 2013

Understanding Pain

Physical pain is something that the majority of us try to avoid of a day to day basis. However, this is not the case with athletes. Athletes will push themselves to that limit on a daily basis with the intention of becoming better than they currently are at their sport.

Pain itself is a sensation which is caused by a certain impulse being sent to the nervous system, which then transfers that impulse to the brain. It is caused by damaging tissue around the body. Physical is also described as being acute, so it will only be pain for a short period of time, or alternatively as chronic, which may last months or even years. How does the body feel this pain? After an injury, for this example I will use a ankle sprain, pain receptors will be stimulated by the stress of the damaged tissue within the ankle. A medical term known as, 'inflammatory soup then effectively floods the tissue, this leads to peripheral sensitisation. Hours later, chemicals will also develop spinal modulation. It may take a few minutes or hours for a sprained ankle to reach its' most painful stage.The pain itself is there to tell you not to damage this tissue anymore, as it needs recovery.

The only kind of injury that athletes are aiming for is muscle fatigue. I do not mean sprains and breakages, but muscular fatigue pain. Pain which develops form using a muscle too much. It is at this point when they know they are improving, as it will repair stronger than before.

How Do They Simply Shrug Off Pain?!

This happens much more then we actually realise. Some athletes are able to continue to participate in their sport even though they are badly injured which should cause them to stop. Example of this include;

  • A rugby player continuing with a torn ligament.
  • A boxer continuing with a broken hand.
  • A long jumper with a sprained hamstring.

As explained within, 'Understanding Pain,' just above, the time gap between the build up of chemicals within an injury such as a torn ligament may takes minutes or hours, it is in this time gap where an athlete sees a window of opportunity if you will because they are able to simply shrug off their pain and continue to compete.

This is why you may hear about such stories as those stated above, usually within the, 'window for opportunity,' the athlete would be in agony. Other elements do also come into play, these include;

  • Self Motivation - If an athlete is so determined to finish a sporting event, then they are more likely to push forward no matter what the pain, so self-psychology is very important as to whether to let the injury take hold of your ambition or not.
  • Adrenaline - A very big attribute to dealing with pain, when adrenaline is released around the body, it makes you more focused, stronger and just generally more efficient at a sport. However, it can also take away some of the pain which you should be experiencing from an injury.
  • Surrounding - Being caught up in the moment, surrounded by the crowd will inhibit your limit of awareness to any pain which you should be suffering. Boxers experience this a lot, when competing, surrounded by a big audience with spotlights on them gives them a massive sense of winning the contest, so giving up is often not a personal choice.

Some athletes can even go into sports with injuries and still compete. Proper stretching techniques and correct rehabilitation methodology will help, however this has its limits. As soon as the adrenaline, inflammatory soup and all other elements which influence continuing a sport while experiencing pain, stops. The athlete is left feeling the full extent of their injury. This is often the phrase when they release exactly how much damage they have done.

How Often You Do Experience Pain?

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The Three C's

'The Three C's,' is a technique used by athletes all around the globe. They are cope, contribute and consequences.

  • Cope - Can you cope with the pain to continue training? Most athletes will decide that they can cope simply because they do not want to slack on their training. However just because they can cope with the pain, does not mean they should, extra damage could be placed upon already damaged tissues around the body, resulting in a worsen injury. In athletic worlds of great competition and pressure it is obvious to see why they always feel they can cope with the pain.
  • Contribute - Are you able to contribute to a meaningful performance? Here is where the athletes with larger egos will suffer. They will wade back into training and competing only to injury themselves to a greater extent and potentially ruin their reputation at the same time. If the athlete is not able to put in the performance needed to improve or win, then they will often just rest and recover from the injury.
  • Consequences - This can be taken from two different angles, one being what are the consequences of not training or competing. These usually are falling behind on a training routine, missing a competition, de-motivating yourself in the process. The other kind of consequence is the consequence of continuing, whether the athlete will damage the tissue even more. Where is it actually worth the result of training or competing or not.

If the answer to all three, is negative then an athlete will not participate, however if even one is positive then most athletes will see that as an opportunity to participate, which often leads to greater injury and consequently returning to the three C's again. It really is a vicious circle.

How Can Two Athletes With The Same Injury Experience Different Pain?

Studies have proven that people respond differently to similar levels of pain. So one athlete may feel an injury much more than another. There are two main reasons for this variation.

  • Pain Stimulus - How the nervous reacts to the pain will vary from athlete to athlete. This is the stage when an athlete will want genetics which will allow them to feel pain to a lesser extent, as genetics is what it boils down to.
  • Perception of Pain - Some athletes will make it their mission never to show pain, never to show that anything is getting to them. This is much more about attitudes towards pain. If someone truly believes they are not in pain, then the pain itself will be inhibited by their thoughts. Mind over matter really does exist. This is not down to genetics, mostly athletes with a stubborn attitude will have a stronger pain resistance.
  • Conditioning - Most athletes will condition their body to their particular sport, this may take years of training, but eventually there tissue make up will be stronger in areas which there sport conduct than others who do not train in that sport. Consequently conditioning that muscle to impacts and to resist injury. An example of this is racket players who have quick twists and movements form their ankles will develop less ankle injuries on average than those who do not play sports, simply because they have conditioned the muscle to that point.

From looking at someone with an injury it is impossible to determine the level of pain they are actually experiencing from the injury. It is only based on our own experiences of a similar pain being described, but you nervous system may be able to handle pain better, you may be more stubborn to the effects of pain than the other person. Within the athletic world, this is common, two long jumpers both with strained hamstrings may find that one can still compete while the other can barely train.

It is also important to consider the type of sport that the athlete preforms, for example a study conducted over 40 years ago, demonstrated that practitioners of contact sports, such as martial arts and boxers, have a more tolerant pain level then those who fence or play racket sports. A more detailed example of this, which may seem a little extreme is a footballer may develop pain from a kick to the shin, which could last days. Whereas a Thai kick boxer in the middle of a title match, with the same level of tissue damage as the footballer is not going to feel it nowhere near as much.


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