Elite Athletes With History Of Abuse At Greater Risk Of Injury: Study

Researchers hope the study will lead to a greater consideration of factors affecting sports performance.

Elite female athletes who have experienced physical or sexual abuse during their lifetime run a greater risk of injuring themselves compared to those without a history of abuse, a new study out of Sweden has found.

Published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, the study is the first of its kind to investigate the consequences of sexual and physical abuse on athletes, including both sports injury and non-sports injury.

Following a report published earlier this year which surveyed sexual abuse within Swedish athletics, the Athletics Research Centre set about determining the impact of abuse on individual track and field athletes.

"We wanted not only to repeat our study into the presence of abuse, but also examine what it means for the athlete," said Toomas Timpka, professor in the Department of Medical and Health Sciences at Linkoping University and head of the study.

"How does a traumatic event influence athletic performance? We wanted to investigate whether abuse is connected to the high degree of overuse injuries that we see in competitive athletics."

Female athletes who had suffered physical abuse were at a 12 times higher risk of sports injury. Image: Getty

Of the 197 participants, 11 percent had experienced sexual abuse and 18 percent had experienced physical abuse.

Researchers found  female athletes who had suffered physical abuse were at a 12 times higher risk of sports injury, while sexual abuse victims were at an eight times higher risk of non-sports injury.

The correlation between abuse and an increase in the risk of injury appeared most clearly in female athletes when compared with male participants in the study.

Timpka said many aspects of the correlation are seen in self-injurious behaviour, which the study defines as behaviours "performed with the knowledge they may or will result in some degree of harm to oneself."

Overuse injuries differ from acute injuries in the way they develop over time as a result of continuing to work the body when it needs rest.

The study followed on from an investigation into sexual abuse in Swedish athletics. Image: Getty

Timpka partially attributed this behaviour to "blame" carried on from the abuse.

"We can see in both young women and young men that they tend to blame themselves," he said.

"The athletes carry the trauma inside themselves, and take risks that can eventually lead to overuse injury.

"At the same time, it's important to remember that not all female athletes who suffer from long-term injuries have been subject to abuse."

Dr Michelle Noon, a psychologist not involved with the study, said abuse survivors are susceptible to becoming "disconnected" from their bodies and the cues it presents, particularly if abuse has occurred early in their life.

"If we've experienced trauma and we're holding that on our bodies one of things that sometimes means for trauma survivors is that people become a bit disconnected and cut off from their bodies," she explained to ten daily.

Noon said while it may be easy for a person who hasn't suffered abuse to think about how their bicep feels, for example, someone who has been physically abused on the arm may find this much more difficult.

"So it just might mean you stop attending to your psychical sensations, so we see a lot of trauma survivors do also have a lot of physical health concerns related to this, like gut concerns, concerns with pain [and] head aches."

The authors urged it is important to remember not all female athletes with overuse injuries have experienced abuse, and these injuries arise due to many factors which differ from person to person. Image: Getty

There are many reasons an athlete may be more vulnerable to injury when stepping out onto their field of play and the stress which accompanies past abuse is no exception, as assistant professor of sports and exercise psychology at Bond University Dr Clive Jones told ten daily.

Jones said if an athlete is under stress, be it emotional or psychical, their baseline stress responses will be at a higher level. This can potentially impact the immune system and leave an athlete more susceptible to injury.

"But a big reason is the whole self-conscious thing as well," Jones said.

"So if they’re distracted, they’re not really on their game, it’s making their movement less efficient and less effective because they’re not as focused on it as they should be."

The study's authors hope their findings will prompt experts in sports psychology, which typically deals with performance, to deal with a greater range of factors when assessing differences in performance, including emotional scars.

"Our results underscore the importance of lifetime abuse and other emotional indicators in the comprehension of injuries sustained by competitive athletes," the author's wrote.

“Just like physical capacities, the competitive athlete’s stress resilience needs to be understood and addressed in educational programming and individual training schedules."