Feb. 16, 1998 Athletes in the heat of competition have a tolerance for pain that may cause them to underestimate the severity of an injury, say researchers at Haverford College.
In an article slated for publication in the science journal Pain, Haverford biological psychologist Wendy Sternberg, collaborator Richard Gracely of the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, MD. and Haverford student researchers found that basketball players, track and field athletes and fencers tested two days before and after an athletic match had a lower threshold to pain stimulus than when tested directly after a game or meet.
The research serves as a warning to parents, coaches, trainers and players: athletes in competition may not be the best judges of the severity of their own injuries.
"The results of this study seem to suggest that self-report of pain during athletic competition may not always be indicative of the true nature of an injury," explains Sternberg, an assistant professor of psychology who first presented the findings at the October meeting of the Society for Neuroscience in New Orleans.
The research, which is one of the first studies to test athletes during competition, provides further explanation as to why competitors like gymnast Kerri Strug are able to overcome debilitating, seemingly painful injuries and give medal-winning performances.
"We've all seen people in specific pressure situations overcome pain to perform amazing feats. And it's long been recognized that animals and humans undergoing stress experience a pain inhibitory state, or a phenomena of stress induced analgesia," Sternberg explains. "We've all attributed this ability in athletes to overcome pain to this same phenomenon. However it's never before been systematically tested in a competitive athletic situation."
The research, which used Haverford College athletes as subjects, asked the athletes to first submerge their hand in a tank filled with cold water and provide rankings for the intensity of the pain and the overall unpleasantness of such an experience. Experimenters also asked subjects to place their fingers and forearms on a warming heat device and then instructed the athletes to withdraw their arms when they felt it was painful.
In all instances, the researchers found the athletes had much higher thresholds for these painful sensations just after competition. Sternberg and her students found that the ratings of pain on the cold water test were dramatically reduced in all athletes on the day of competition compared to either baseline test. On the heat withdrawal test, the results varied by sport and body region tested. In basketball players and track athletes, there were increases in threshold (decrease in sensitivity) on the forearm, but reduced latencies (increased sensitivity) on the fingertips. Fencers showed this increased sensitivity in both body sites.
"These results are interesting because they demonstrate pain sensations are, indeed, significantly altered by competition situations, and they provide further evidence that the brain can profoundly modulate incoming pain sensations in response to particular situations," says Sternberg.
Sternberg has been a member of Haverford's faculty since 1995. Prior to her appointment, she was a fellow in the Dr. Norman Cousins program in Psychoneuroimmunology in the department of psychiatry and biobehavioral sciences at UCLA. Her past research, conducted with colleagues at UCLA on gender differences in the way the brain inhibits pain was voted one of Discover Magazine's top science stories in 1993. She currently has a grant from the National Science Foundation to study the influence of hormones and sex differences in pain response in animals under stress.
Located 10 miles outside Philadelphia in Haverford, Pa., Haverford College is one of the nation's leading liberal arts institutions.
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