Athletes in the heat of competition have a tolerance for pain thatmay cause them to underestimate the severity of an injury, say researchersat Haverford College.
In an article slated for publication in the science journal Pain,Haverford biological psychologist Wendy Sternberg, collaborator RichardGracely of the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, MD. and Haverfordstudent researchers found that basketball players, track and field athletesand fencers tested two days before and after an athletic match had a lowerthreshold to pain stimulus than when tested directly after a game or meet.
The research serves as a warning to parents, coaches, trainers andplayers: athletes in competition may not be the best judges of the severityof their own injuries.
"The results of this study seem to suggest that self-report of painduring athletic competition may not always be indicative of the true natureof an injury," explains Sternberg, an assistant professor of psychology whofirst presented the findings at the October meeting of the Society forNeuroscience in New Orleans.
The research, which is one of the first studies to test athletesduring competition, provides further explanation as to why competitors likegymnast Kerri Strug are able to overcome debilitating, seemingly painfulinjuries and give medal-winning performances.
"We've all seen people in specific pressure situations overcomepain to perform amazing feats. And it's long been recognized that animalsand humans undergoing stress experience a pain inhibitory state, or aphenomena of stress induced analgesia," Sternberg explains. "We've allattributed this ability in athletes to overcome pain to this samephenomenon. However it's never before been systematically tested in acompetitive athletic situation."
The research, which used Haverford College athletes as subjects,asked the athletes to first submerge their hand in a tank filled with coldwater and provide rankings for the intensity of the pain and the overallunpleasantness of such an experience. Experimenters also asked subjects toplace their fingers and forearms on a warming heat device and theninstructed the athletes to withdraw their arms when they felt it waspainful.
In all instances, the researchers found the athletes had muchhigher thresholds for these painful sensations just after competition.Sternberg and her students found that the ratings of pain on the cold watertest were dramatically reduced in all athletes on the day of competitioncompared to either baseline test.On the heat withdrawal test, the results varied by sport and bodyregion tested. In basketball players and track athletes, there wereincreases in threshold (decrease in sensitivity) on the forearm, butreduced latencies (increased sensitivity) on the fingertips. Fencers showedthis increased sensitivity in both body sites.
"These results are interesting because they demonstrate painsensations are, indeed, significantly altered by competition situations,and they provide further evidence that the brain can profoundly modulateincoming pain sensations in response to particular situations," saysSternberg.
Sternberg has been a member of Haverford's faculty since 1995.Prior to her appointment, she was a fellow in the Dr. Norman Cousinsprogram in Psychoneuroimmunology in the department of psychiatry andbiobehavioral sciences at UCLA. Her past research, conducted withcolleagues at UCLA on gender differences in the way the brain inhibits painwas voted one of Discover Magazine's top science stories in 1993. Shecurrently has a grant from the National Science Foundation to study theinfluence of hormones and sex differences in pain response in animals understress.
Located 10 miles outside Philadelphia in Haverford, Pa., HaverfordCollege is one of the nation's leading liberal arts institutions.
Materials provided by Haverford College. Note: Content may be edited for style and length.
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