Andy Murray's hip

Pain and injury at Wimbledon

Why is there so much pain and injury at Wimbledon this year?

Pain and injury at Wimbledon

Seven retirements and a very painful injury on-court yesterday at Wimbledon have given the tournament a different feel. Pain and injury are part of sport, but many people have been surprised by the turn of events. Federer has called for a review of the system and several players have complained about the state of the courts. All are factors of course. The game is simply made up of the synergy of players, court and tournament. When all are ticking, we see great tennis.

The very painful moment

Bethanie Mattek-Sands was screaming out in pain this week after her knee appeared to give way. One report suggested that she could have sustained a knee cap dislocation. This can be extremely painful until relocated. Seeing the dislocation can add to the trauma. When our body does not appear as we expect, the sight can trigger feelings of aversion.

Why so much pain?

Pain is a part of the way we protect ourselves. There are many other things going on when we are in state of protect: change in movement, change in sense, altered thinking and emotion, change in perception. In other words, the world looks different and feels different as we take action in the name of survival. This is a normal shift of state in the face of a perceived threat. Pain is a lived experience when there is a perceived threat. Pain is not well related to injury. This is the common misunderstanding. Just because it hurts a lot, it does not mean that the injury is more severe. We have known this for a long time ~ see here: pain in sport, 3 key points.

When thinking about the reasons for the pain response, the context is key. In other words the situation plays a significant part in the pain experience. As well as potential tissue injury, where that possible injury occurs and what is happening is highly relevant — it always has to happen somewhere! The full picture perceived creates a learning opportunity. If this is possibly dangerous, I need to remember what happened and where so that next time I can react differently.

All of this information is processed together with sensory information from the body, based upon what is already known about injury and the situation. In essence we make a best guess about the possible causes of the sensory information on a background of our previous experiences. In effect, we weigh up the evidence: new information vs what we know, which then suggests a scenario. If this is a potentially dangerous situation, pain can then form part of the experience. The more danger perceived, the more intense the pain.

How much danger did Bethanie perceive when her knee gave way at the biggest tennis championship in the world, in front of a big crowd, when each game is career shaping?

Whatever the outcome for Bethanie, I wish her well.

Messi’s knee

In 2012 Lionel Messi was running into the box when he brushed the keeper as he came out to meet him at speed. Messi managed to get a shot away (he missed) before he hit the ground clutching his knee. He was quoted as saying that he thought his career was over because of the pain.

How dangerous was the situation to Messi? Consider: the perceived injury (he did not know about the extent of the damage at that point), the game, the crowd silent, the body part involved, how knee injuries are thought of in the culture of football, the immediate thoughts about injury and what it means and much more.

Messi was taken off the field on a cart and whisked to hospital where he was scanned. What was the injury? A bruise.

Pain and injury are not the same. The terms are often used synonymously, but this is not correct usage. A further example is phantom limb pain. The person suffers pain in a limb that no longer exists.

Pain and injury

Why have there been so many injuries?

We have seen multiple retirements during games at Wimbledon this year. Whilst some people have been frustrated, we must also consider that these players have to make choices. These are based on the culture of the sport, the system, their career, their income and their understanding of pain.

There will be a weighing up of the pros and cons, and each individual will consider different factors before deciding. We do not know what those factors are in each case, so we cannot make any specific assumptions or criticise. In life, how many assumptions are made when someone is being critical of another without knowing the full picture?

“aches and pains are part of sport

In sport, the day to day aches and pains are a well known part of the deal. Simple measures are taken to address theses responses so that the athlete can continue to perform: e.g./ physiotherapy treatment, massage, ice baths, stretching, periodisation. However, despite the level of fitness, each body needs to adapt to the demands of the training and play. Without this time, there can be a tipping of the ‘build-breakdown’ balance towards the breakdown (inflammation). A state of chronic inflammation is likely to explain a range of common problems that can become significant.

When an acute injury occurs in sport, there is pressure to resume play as soon as possible. Do players return too soon? Are they fully ready? Being ready means that the body tissue are robust to withstand the stresses and strains, movement patterns are normalised (and not guarded), body sense is acute and thought patterns focus on the game and not on the body.

“the clues are in the story

We do not know all the factors involved with each player at Wimbledon who had to retire, but the points described above are relevant and need consideration. When clinicians are assessing an injury, this is especially so. Each injury or pain moment (the two are different) occurs in a context as we have established. Nothing happens in isolation, we are on a timeline, and hence we must consider how the person may be primed by prior learning. What are the influences upon this current moment? Some will be obvious and some more hidden. This is why allowing the person to tell their story is vital. The clues lie within their narrative, so we must listen actively and be open.

This is a brief look at some of the key issues. Pain and injury are always going to feature in sport. We need to draw upon the pinnacle of our knowledge of pain and bring this into the athletic world. In other words, we need a shift in the thinking away from the biomedical model, instead looking at the wider picture: a true biopsychosocial, or sociopsychobio model. Here is a reminder of the key points:

The key points:
  • pain and injury are poorly related
  • pain is suffered by the (whole) person not a body part (e.g. tendon pain ~ the primary focus remains on the tendon rather than the person)
  • pain does change when it is understood by the person and they actively create new patterns

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