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Athletes Often Struggle with Chronic Pain

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Photo: Haiti NOC

By Dr. Tomi Wahlstrom |

Sports are usually good for health when done in moderation. However, as with everything in life, when done in excess, sports can be risky. Professional athletes often sacrifice their health in pursuit of their careers. They face risks of accidents and long-term wear and tear on their bodies. In some instances, athletes face a lifetime of pain after they retire from their athletic careers. Chronic pain can be debilitating and devastating. It can lead to other problems such as addiction to painkillers and mental health issues.

Painkillers such as Oxycodone and Hydrocodone may seem innocent at first. However, they are very addictive even after a short time of use. As a side effect, they provide a sense of relaxation and wellbeing that can be psychologically addicting especially with individuals who have genetic a disposition to addictions or existing mental health issues. Furthermore, this effect can be multiplied with those who are already heavy substance abusers. Opioid use among athletes is well known and documented. Regardless, it is not well understood and openly discussed. Opioids are given by physicians very easily and without many precautions. Coaches may even encourage their use in order to get athletes back in the game. Many athletes are reluctant and embarrassed to admit their chronic pain in fear of damaging their careers or because of the culture of toughness that often surrounds sports. Admitting to pain is seen as weakness. Furthermore, mental health issues such as depression and anxiety are not well understood by athletic trainers and even sports psychologists. They are often ignored almost intentionally. Here again, the culture of toughness is harmful. In the end, some of the strongest are the weakest as chronic pain will gradually break down even the toughest of us. Those who are brave enough to be vulnerable and admit their pain, and ask for help, will have an advantage. They are more likely to survive their pain and learn how to cope with it.

Chronic pain can be very difficult mentally. It can cause a person to start feeling depressed due to the way it impacts daily life. Eventually, a person may even want to give up and start contemplating a suicide. After all, living with pain can be excruciating and very challenging. It is understandable that a person would start feeling some hopelessness. Chronic pain can make even the most basic daily activities difficult to perform. Driving a car or even taking a shower may become a challenge. The nagging pain may cause aggravation and lead to anger outburst. Therefore, living with a person who suffers from chronic pain can be difficult. Sometimes athletes sacrifice their social lives to practice their sports. This may lead them to have a limited support system. Yet, a good support system is essential for someone suffering from intense pain. Depression often leads to substance abuse which in term causes additional challenges. It is a cycle that can become almost impossible to escape.

Very often a person suffering from chronic pain appears to be physically fine. Their pain is hard to see by others. Therefore, people may have a hard time believing and understanding the amount of pain a person is experiencing. Neuropathic pain is the most difficult type of pain that athletes can experience. It is invisible and hard to diagnose. This type of pain originates from spinal cord injuries. The pain can radiate to different parts of the body in addition to the injured area. Knee, neck, shoulder, and rib cage injuries are also very common among athletes. If left untreated, these injuries can be life-threatening and cause paralysis. They are serious and should be diagnosed and treated early, before permanent damage occurs.

Dr. Tomi Wahlstrom is the Provost at the United States Sports Academy.

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