Pain Threshold and Tolerance Differences among Intercollegiate Athletes: Implication of Past Sports Injuries and Willingness to Compete among Sports Teams

By Raudenbush, Bryan; Canter, Raymond J. et al. | North American Journal of Psychology, March 2012 | Go to article overview

Pain Threshold and Tolerance Differences among Intercollegiate Athletes: Implication of Past Sports Injuries and Willingness to Compete among Sports Teams


Raudenbush, Bryan, Canter, Raymond J., Corley, Nathan, Grayhem, Rebecca, Koon, Jerrod, Lilley, Sarah, Meyer, Brian, Wilson, Ian, North American Journal of Psychology


The likelihood of experiencing pain and injury increases as physical contact among athletes increases (Stanish, Tripp, Coady, & Biddulph, 2001). In fact, sports such as boxing and football would seem to require the ability to withstand pain from injury for an extended period of time. Pain is a warning symptom which tends to mediate play and performance in athletes; greater levels of pain should be an indication to athletes to be more cautious in their decision to play, and playing while experiencing pain often leads to decreased performance. Pain is not only a pathological symptom, but a useful and necessary adjunct to inhibit sports participation when injury is involved (Prokop, 2000). However, players are often viewed negatively by coaches, and possess decreased self-esteem, when admitting to an injury (Roderick, 2006), and such injuries

may bring about negative emotions, guilt and decreased self-efficacy (San Jose, 2003).

Athletes have typically shown higher pain tolerance than non-athletes (Janal, Glusman, Kuhl & Clark, 1994; Walker, 1971). When subjected to a cold pressor test (submersion of hand and forearm in a cold water bath), athletes report less pain than non-athletes (Sullivan, Tripp, Rodgers, & Stanish, 2002), indicating the potential effects of athletic performance, motivation, and/or aggressiveness on desensitizing athletes to pain (Sternberg, Bailin, Grant, & Gracely, 1998). In addition, Ryan and Kovacic (1966) noted that contact athletes tolerate more pain than noncontact athletes or nonathletes. However, the pain tolerance and threshold of different types of athletes based on the particular sport one plays has yet to be addressed.

A relationship between contact level in sport participation and level of aggression has been reported (Bredemeier, Weiss, Shields & Copper, 1986; Ticker & Parks, 2001). Bredemeier et al. (1986) noted that boys who had more experience in high contact sports described themselves as more physically aggressive in both sport-specific and daily life contexts than did boys who had less experience with high contact sports. Athletes participating in high contact sports also have significantly more aggressive responses in a non-sporting context than those in low contact sports (Huang, Cherek, & Lane, 1999). This suggests that psychological variables, such as aggressiveness, may, in part, contribute to lower pain ratings in high contact sport athletes.

The present study was designed to examine issues related to pain perception and tolerance in sports varying in level of contact, and the subsequent impact on an athlete's willingness to continue sports play while injured. In Phase I, pain threshold and tolerance among intercollegiate male athletes, participating in a variety of contact and non-contact sports, was assessed. Measures of aggressiveness and competitiveness were recorded to serve as covariates. It was hypothesized that contact sport athletes would demonstrate greater pain tolerance, and be able to tolerate painful stimulation for a longer period of time. Level of aggressiveness and competitiveness were expected to correlate positively with pain tolerance measures.

Since pain is an important signaling mechanism which provides information concerning injury, it was hypothesized that contact sport players in general, and lacrosse and soccer players in particular, may continue to perform their sport past the point where pain would otherwise indicate that they should stop. Such behaviors would further complicate injuries and eventually lead to greater pain complications. Phase II assessed this possibility.

PHASE I

Method

Participants One hundred and eighty-three male Division II athletes were assessed. Participants were comprised of lacrosse (n=54), soccer (n=51), basketball (n=30), track (n=24), and swimming (n=24) athletic teams. The mean age was 19.5 years (SD = 1.30 years). Athletes were compensated with $10 for their participation. …

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