Chronic Pain in Sport

Please note: I did not write this blog, I just think it is excellent! 

Chronic pain in sport – Specialist Clinic in London

February 3, 2012 By richmondstace


Chronic pain is a real problem in the sporting world. The effects of not being able to participate are far reaching, especially when sport is your profession. There are a huge numbers of clinics offering treatments to deal with pain and injury and in many cases the problem improves. However, there are those who do not progress successfully, resulting in on-going pain, failed attempts to return to playing and varied responses to tissue-based treatment (manual therapy, injections, surgery etc). Understanding more about pain and how your body (brain) continues to protect itself is a really useful start point in moving forwards if you have become stuck. We know that gaining knowledge about the problem can actually improve a clinical test and the pain threshold.

When we injure ourselves playing sport the healing process begins immediately. Chemicals released by the tissues and the immune system are active locally, sealing off the area, dealing with the damaged tissue and setting the stage for rebuilding and repair. The pain asscociated with this phase is expected, normal and unpleasant. It is the unpleasantness that drives you to behave in a protective manner, for example limp, seek advice and treatment. Again, that is normal. Sometimes we can injure ourselves and not know that we have damaged the tissues. There are many stories of this happening when survival or something else is more important. This is because pain is a brain (not mind or ‘in the head’) experience 100% of the time. The brain perceives a threat and then protects the body. If no threat is perceived or it is more important to escape or finish the cup final, the brain is quite capable of releasing chemicals (perhaps 30 times more powerful than morphine) to provide natural pain relief. We know that pain is a brain experience because of phantom limb pain, a terrible situation when pain is felt in a limb that no longer exists. The reason is that we actually ‘feel’ or ‘sense’ our bodies via our virtual body that is mapped out in the brain. This has been mapped out by some clever scientists and in more recent years studies intensely using functional MRI scans of the brain.

Unfortunately, the brain can continue to protect the body with pain and altered movement beyond the time that is really useful. Changes in the properties of the neurons in the central nervous system (central sensitisation) mean that stimuli that are normally innocuous now trigger a painful response as can those outside of the affected area. One way to think about this functionality is that the gain or volume has been turned up, and we know that much of this amplification occurs in the spinal cord, involving both neurons and the immune system. Neurogenic inflammation can also be a feature, where the C-fibres release inflammatory chemicals into the tissues that they supply. On the basis that the brain is really interested in inflammation, even a small inflammatory response can evoke protective measures. Changes in the responsiveness of the ‘danger’ system as briefly described, underpin much of the persisting sensitivity. Altered perception is a further common description, either in the sense that the area is not controlled well or feels somewhat different – see here.

As the problem persists, so thinking and beliefs about the pain and injury can become increasingly negative. Unfortunately this can lead to behaviours that do not promote progression. Avoidance of activities, fear of movement, hypervigilance to signals from the body and catastrophising about the pain are all common features, all of which require addressing with both pain education and positive experiences to develop confidence and deeper understanding. An improvement in the pain level is a great way of starting this process, hence the importance of a tool box of therapies and strategies that target the pain mechanism(s) identified in the assessment.

Experience and plenty of scientific data describe the integration of body, brain and mind. This can no longer be ignored. It is fact. The contemporary biobehavioural approach to chronic and complex pain addresses the pain mechanisms, issues around the problem and the influencing factors in a biopsychosocial sense: