Do Athletes Have a Higher Pain Tolerance?

Athletes seem to be able to endure great amounts of pain. But do they have an actual physical difference? Do they have a naturally higher pain tolerance? Science takes a look.

Pain tolerance is a popular topic when it comes to athletes. It seems at times that athletes can still perform at a high skill level even when suffering an injury that causes a great deal of pain. Sometimes a lot is expected from athletes, and as a result of the pressure that sometimes accompanies those expectations, they often opt to “play through the pain.” This mindset suggests athletes may experience or deal with pain differently than non-athletes. Although the subject of pain perception has been studied before, the results are inconsistent and at times contradictory. Recently, a meta-analysis was conducted at the University of Heidelberg using previous research to determine if in fact athletes can tolerate a higher level of pain than that of non-athletes.1

The researchers reviewed fifteen different studies that dealt with pain threshold or tolerance in athletes compared to active non-athletes. The analysis involved 568 athletes and 331 active non-athletes, including both men and women. Twelve of the fifteen studies evaluated pain tolerance, and nine of the fifteen evaluated pain threshold.2

The results of this analysis confirmed partly what was hypothesized: athletes indicated a consistently higher pain tolerance compared to the active non-athletes. The pain threshold of the athletes depended, however, on the type of sport in which they participated. Higher tolerance for pain involved athletes who participated in game sports, but were shown to be more diverse in their physical and psychological profiles. Endurance athletes indicated a moderate threshold for pain, and unlike the athletes who participated in game sports, they were more consistent in their physical and psychological profiles.3

This meta-analysis found those who participate in exercise are more prone to a higher pain tolerance, but the pain thresholds rely on many different variables and can be inconsistent. According to Dr. Jonas Tesarz, the leading author of the study:

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.4

Dr. Tesarz went on to say that further research is needed to determine the exact relationship between physical activity and modifications in pain perception, and that more research is needed to pinpoint the psychological factors and neurobiological processes.5

Based on the findings of this study, you can and add pain tolerance as another quality that athletes possess compared to the average Joe. Athletes often possess skills, instincts, and other qualities that seem somewhat superhuman, and the fact that they deal with pain more efficiently than normal people suggests that athletes are somewhat of a different breed. Perhaps future studies can determine the mechanisms athletes use to deal with pain, and possibly methods for pain tolerance can be created.