“Pain is more than one thing,” explains Dr. Jeffrey Mogil, the head of the Pain Genetics Lab at McGill University. It’s a sensation, like vision or touch; it’s an emotion, like anger or sadness; and it’s also a “drive state” that compels action, like hunger.
For athletes, all of these effects mingle together in different ways depending on the nature of the pain they’re experiencing and the demands of their particular sport – the sudden shock of a stiff body-check versus the relentless burn of sustained effort.
Some individual variation in pain sensitivity is genetic – Mogil pegs the fraction, very loosely, at a bit less than 50 per cent. He and his colleagues at McGill have identified 10 genes associated with pain response, and researchers elsewhere have identified another 50 or so, but there are still thousands more awaiting discovery. The rest of the variation is environmental, driven by factors such as age, diet and, most importantly, prior experience with pain. In general, the more pain you experience, the more sensitive to pain you become.
There are, however, some intriguing hints that the long hours of training endured by Olympic athletes produce the opposite effect. For example, a British Medical Journal study in 1981 found that elite swimmers displayed increasing tolerance to pain inflicted by cutting off circulation to their forearms as their training progressed toward a competitive peak. Their tolerance then declined again when they took a break from training.
To Dr. Alexis Mauger, a researcher at the University of Kent in Britain who is studying the relationship between pain and the limits of athletic performance, this suggests pain tolerance can indeed be trained. In part, he says, it’s about: “Learning to break through a conservative pain barrier so that you can operate closer to a true physiological limit.”
In other words, your brain tells you to stop before your body really has to. Mauger has led a series of studies in which cyclists taking acetaminophen (i.e., Tylenol) are able to cycle farther or faster than those given a placebo. The difference in speed is most pronounced late in the trials, when the cyclists are in the most pain.
Many have been tuning in to the Winter Olympic Games and during the events, we undoubtedly will see not only efforts of athleticism and valor, but also potentially painful crashes and injuries. Does this ever make you think about what separates you from these world-class athletes (besides the athletic physique and the stretchy neon speedsuit)? Are these individuals better physically suited to perform? What allows them to achieve, and, maybe the most often asked question: are they oblivious to pain? What allows these individuals to push themselves beyond what “normal people” would or should endure to strive towards gold?
The article raises some interesting points to ponder
Do athletes have the same pain threshold as “the rest of us”?
What happens in your body as you experience more pain?
Can pain tolerance be trained?
Can you learn to use your pain positively?
Jennifer Martin PT, OCS, FAAOMPT, completed her physical therapy coursework and played volleyball at Marquette University. She has worked and taught education courses in several countries, but now calls Minneapolis, Minnesota, home – where she has an orthopedic practice and treats sporty types, professional dancers and musicians, as well as everyday folks with everyday injuries. When not working or teaching, she is often planning a travel adventure or doing something sporty herself.
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