Sep 20, 2018
Abuse Increases Injury Risk

Athletes with physical or sexual abuse in their past unquestionably carry scars from the experience. Now, research suggests that they may also be predisposed to incurring sports injuries, especially females.

A recent article in ScienceDaily reported on a study conducted by the Athletics Research Center at Linköping University in Sweden and published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine. The new study, which looked at the impact of sexual or physical abuse on athletic performance later in life, was conducted as a follow-up to previous research by the Center that measured the prevalence of sexual abuse in Swedish 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, MD, PhD, professor in Linköping’s Department of Medical and Health Sciences and lead author on 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.”

The study looked at 197 men and women. Eleven percent had been sexually abused, and 18 percent had been physically abused. The female participants in the study suffered 12 times more sports-related injuries than their non-abused peers, as well as eight times as many injuries not related to sports. The connection between previous abuse and later injury was stronger in females than in males.

Timpka suggests that athletes’ tendency to internalize blame for the abusive events may explain the greater risk of injury later in life.

“Many aspects of the correlation are also seen in self-injurious behavior,” he said. “We can see in both young women and young men that they tend to blame themselves. The athletes carry the trauma inside themselves, and take risks that can eventually lead to overuse injury.”

However, while the connection between injury and previous abuse is significant, Timpka urges caution in extrapolating from the study.

“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,” he said. “These injuries arise in interaction between many factors, which differ from one individual to another.”

More investigation is needed, and Timpka is hopeful that his team’s research will open doors between fields that have not traditionally collaborated.

“We hope that our study can pave the way for a new multidisciplinary research area within sports medicine,” he said. “We can gain new insights with the aid of clinical psychologists and child psychologists who participate in sports medicine research.”

Image by Jack Marion.

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