To provide background information for the study, the investigators explain that prior studies showing how sports people perceive pain have been inconsistent, and even contradictory at times. So, Jonas Tesarz, MD, and team carried out a meta-analysis of published research to determine whether athletes had a higher pain tolerance than normally-active people. The results suggest that this indeed the case.
Pain threshold, however, was found to be no different between the two groups of people. Pain threshold describes the minimum intensity at which a person perceives a stimulus as painful. Pain tolerance, on the other hand, looks at how much pain you can bear at any one moment.
The authors collected data from fifteen studies that examined experimentally induced pain to determine athletes’ pain threshold or tolerance – in all cases they were compared to normally active control participants. A total of 331 normally active controls and 568 athletes were included. The studies included a variety of sports, including strength sports, game sports, and endurance sports.
A total of nine studies focused on pain threshold and twelve on pain tolerance. The researchers found athletes consistently had a higher pain tolerance than other people. The amount of pain they could handle varied, and depended largely on the type of sport they engaged in.
Endurance sport athletes had a moderate level of pain tolerance. Among the participants, their pain tolerance was found to be fairly uniform. Game sports athletes had higher pain tolerance than other athletes in general, but their scores varied greatly. The authors believe endurance athletes had similar scores for pain tolerance because they were physically and psychologically similar, while those involved in game sports are physically and psychologically more diverse.
Despite pain tolerance being higher among athletes, pain threshold appears to have a more ambiguous effect on individuals. Dr. Tesarz adds, "Numerous studies of the effect of physical exercise in pain patients demonstrate a consistent impact on quality of life and functioning without an improvement in pain scores. It may be advisable in exercise treatment for pain patients to focus on the development of their pain-coping skills that would affect tolerance, rather than the direct alleviation of pain threshold.”