When Chronic Pain Impedes Your Athletic Activity

Eric H. Williams MD
Specializing in reconstructive surgery and pain relief in the Greater Baltimore area.

For many, sports and other physical activities are a large part of their life and identity.

Some view the opportunity to get out and get active as a means of balancing an otherwise work-filled life. They can be social, playing with a beloved team, or they may enjoy the solitude of taking on trails and goals on their own.

Others view their athletic abilities as a purpose. It is their means of heading to college and even, perhaps, the pros. To continuously compete and improve is a demand they place squarely on themselves.

And then something happens to throw a big roadblock in these goals.

Perhaps it’s an injury on the field, or an unexpected accident happens in daily life. Perhaps the problem just sort of manifested on its own. In any case, there is now chronic pain that can interfere with an athlete’s life, and the effects can be devastating.

The Psychological Effects of Chronic Pain on an Athlete

In general, research suggests that committed athletes tend to be psychologically healthy on a whole. Physical activity in itself can be a positive influence on mental health, and confidence and control in one’s own abilities is common in someone who has spent a long time training.

When those abilities become diminished through chronic pain, however, it opens a door to allow plenty of negative feelings a chance to enter.

Negative emotional responses to pain and misfortune are expected. That is a very normal part of the human experience, after all. However, these feelings can manifest into lines of thinking and physical responses that can be destructive to one’s well-being.

Thoughts can spiral into self-statements like:

  • “I have let (my team) (my coach) (my parents) (my self) down.”
  • “My dreams are over.”
  • “I will never become what I wanted to be.”
  • “I’m useless now.”
  • “It’s not fair this happened to me!”

If an athlete (or anyone) who is in chronic pain has consistent thoughts such as these, they are best discussed and processed with a professional therapist. We must be provided and allowed proper avenues to cope with psychological pain just as much as physical pain.

Otherwise, psychological pain can manifest in someone’s daily life in physical ways, such as:

  • Loss of sleep.
  • Changes in appetite (in athletes, this can often manifest as reduced eating, under the improper notion that they “don’t deserve to eat” or “don’t expend enough energy anymore”).
  • Depression.
  • Disengagement from socializing and other activities, which can lead to isolation.
  • Irritability, which may lead to outbursts of crying or rage.
  • Substance abuse.

Attempting to address these issues is as important as attempting to address the physical pain itself. Both are harmful, and they can easily feed off each other to form a downward spiral. However, the situation is not always as easy as “take care of the pain and the rest will follow.”

How We Approach Chronic Pain

We wish we could promise every athlete that their pain will entirely vanish and they can get right back to what they love to do. Unfortunately, that is something we can’t do.

While we have been able to help many athletes find relief from pain and return to sports, there are also cases where this does not happen.

Sometimes, we can provide significant relief to a patient, but it may not be enough for them to return to the same level of athletic performance they once had. These situations may involve:

  • A significant reduction in pain, but some still remains.
  • Relief of pain, but at a cost of numbness in certain areas.
  • The removal of nerves, which may relieve pain, but also can leave the leftover nerve ending (nerve stump) in danger of trauma or injury.  The right type of hit to the area can reactivate the pain, and is often difficult to reverse, and procedures that may help tend to be more extensive and challenging to perform and recover from.

When it comes to our purpose as a nerve specialist, our priorities are clear: relieve a patient’s pain, keep that pain away, and prevent similar situations from happening—all to the best of our abilities.

If these priorities can be accomplished in a way that allows for full rehabilitation and a return to sports or activities, we are thrilled to have such an outcome. However, there are few absolutes in surgical procedures such as these. A certain level of risk must always be acknowledged and accepted; and common sense must be judiciously exercised.

We have unfortunately had to tell a number of our patients that their original athletic goals were not something they could or should reasonably be expected to accomplish anymore.  In most of these cases, the patients already had an indication of this, and had moved on to pursue new goals. We know that doesn’t potentially make the matter any less emotionally painful to process and cope with, but light remains at the end of the tunnel. Do not deny yourself or your loved one the resources to help reach that point.  It can be incredibly helpful to realize that often when one door may be closed, another door that was never considered may be opened.  

We have successfully treated many patients that return to participate in athletics at some level either in a very personal independent controlled environment or in a more team-oriented environment.   These decisions are often very personal and are best made after some discussion and soul searching.  It is also important to acknowledge that there is abundant evidence that regular physical activity is very important in any patient’s recovery – even if it is not at the level that was once enjoyed – regular daily activity and exercise of some level is critical to help provide the optimum outcome both physically and mentally after an injury.     

If you or a loved one has been struggling with chronic neuropathic pain following recovery from an injury, and your primary care physician and other experts have not been able to locate a source of your discomfort, you may be a candidate for review by Dr. Williams.

Please call our Baltimore area office at (410) 709-3868 or fill out our online contact form to have a member of our office reach out to you.

Comments are closed.