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Persistent, or chronic, pain in athletes

Pain is produced by the brain. Pain that you’ve had for weeks or months is acute pain. Pain that you’ve had for three or more months is chronic pain. And because the brain is the complicated organ that it is, it is possible that chronic pain, also known as persistent pain, can continue even after an injury has healed.

Chronic pain is surprisingly common. Some of the research has been a little bit variable for industrialized countries.1 For adults in Canada, it looks like between 15% and 20% suffer from chronic pain.2

Sometimes, when people think about chronic pain, they think of aging. When we think of persistent pain, we’re more likely to think of athletes.

Persistent pain is surprisingly common in athletes. The University of Maryland Medical Center estimate that 5-10% of athletic injuries relate to the low back and a significant amount of these injuries can result in persistent pain:3

Even though low back pain can often be treated without major disruption in a person’s life, athletes are often reluctant to seek medical help. Many of them deny or minimize complaints in order to avoid consequences, such as: having to decrease activity in order to recover, losing a position or being removed from a team, missing a competition, or letting the team down. Others fear they might lose their worth to the team. Some athletes simply do not want to bother seeing a doctor for pain; they believe it will recover on its own.

Here at Arbutus, we see these dynamics play out with athletic injuries of all kinds. Athletes, being athletes, are sometimes reticent to ask for help with pain points.

Pain can continue beyond injury and structural changes in the body. When this happens here’s a few things to think about:

  1. when considering surgery, get a second opinion,
  2. evaluate your mood and stress levels, and their impact on your nervous system,
  3. diet and lifestyle have an important impact on the nervous system,
  4. physical activity is important to retrain the brain and to restructure the brain’s use of fear.

And this is where we can come in. If you suffer from chronic pain, let us help you.

This video is a nice review of these challenge.

  1. In a meta study of epidemiological studies of chronic pain in adults, Verhaak et al reported a range of estimates: from 2% to 40%.
  2. See this study, “The prevalence of chronic pain in Canada“, by Donald Schopflocher, PhD, Paul Taenzer, PhD,and Roman Jovey, MD, for a good discussion and research that determined 18.9% of adult Canadians suffer from chronic pain.
  3. Low Back Pain in Athletes