Pain separates real athletes from the weekend warriors. While some men give up at the slightest cramp, others push through the pain in order to climb one more excruciating hill. The ability of athletes to withstand pain is well known, but a new review shows that athletes have a higher pain tolerance than the general population.
Researchers from Germany looked at 15 previous studies that involved experimentally induced pain. The results are published in the journal Pain. The studies included male and female athletes from endurance and strength sports, as well as from game sports like hockey and football. The athletes’ pain tolerance and threshold were compared to non-athletic, but active, people.
Athletes, in fact, showed a higher tolerance for pain. Endurance athletes had a moderate pain tolerance, with similar scores across the board. Game athletes could withstand much more pain, although their scores were more varied. The researchers suggest that sports like football may attract a more diverse group of people than running or biking.
Pain threshold—an indication of when a stimulus starts to hurt—did not differ significantly between athletes and the active people. Athletes still feel pain, but they are better able to cope with it.
It may be that people who stay with sports are ones who can handle pain in the first place. Studies with pain patients, however, have shown that exercise can improve their quality of life, without affecting how much pain they feel. This seems to indicate that exercise may also increase pain tolerance.
As for the athletes, the researchers say in the paper, “pain coping is an integral part of athletic training, and coping skills are important features in the development of athletic character.” Bring it on.