Study of the Day: Regular Exercise May Improve Your Tolerance to Pain

A new meta-analysis shows that, even though athletes' pain threshold is similar to that of other active adults, their ability to withstand the agony is superior.

Study of the Day
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PROBLEM: There's plenty of anecdotal evidence on athletes who bravely "play through the pain." Still, the scientific evidence to support the belief that athletes experience pain differently has not been as consistent.

METHODOLOGY: University of Heidelberg researchers led by Jonas Tesarz reviewed 15 studies that compared experimentally induced pain threshold or tolerance in athletes and moderately active people. They analyzed experiments that included adult men and women; tested 568 athletes and 331 normally active control participants; and involved endurance sports, game sports, and strength sports.

RESULTS: Though the athletic subjects can stand more pain than the other active adult subjects, the magnitude they can stand varies. Endurance athletes had a fairly consistent, moderate tolerance for pain while athletes involved in game sports had greater tolerance scores that varied more widely. As for pain threshold, or the minimum intensity at which a stimulus is perceived as painful, the athletes and the control subjects did not significantly differ.

CONCLUSION: Athletes can endure more pain than moderately active people.

IMPLICATION: The finding that regular exercise is associated with higher pain tolerance may have clinical implications. Tesarz says in a statement: "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."

SOURCE: The full study, "Pain Perception in Athletes Compared to Normally Active Controls: A Systematic Review With Meta-Analysis," is published in the journal Pain.

Hans Villarica writes for and produces The Atlantic's Health channel. His work has appeared in TIME, People Asia, and Fast Company.


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