Elite Athletes' Anxiety Over Illness Ups Risk of Injury in Competition

Athletes who feel anxious over symptoms of an illness before a high-stakes competition are five times more likely to suffer injury during the competition, according to a new study by an international team of researchers led by Linköping University in Sweden.

“Elite athletes know their own bodies extremely well. If an athlete becomes anxious about injury or illness, this is a reliable indicator of the degree of seriousness. We have seen this also in previous studies. An athlete cannot lie to himself or herself,” says researcher Toomas Timpka of the Athletic Research Center, Department of Medicine and Health Sciences at Linköping University.

For the study, researchers investigated factors that might predict the risk of injury or illness during competition. Around 300 athletes from 50 countries completed a questionnaire reporting their health status one month before they competed in the International Association of Athletics Federations World Championships in Athletics 2015. The researchers subsequently registered any new injuries and illnesses that arose during the competition period.

The findings show that athletes who had been anxious about symptoms of illness before the competition had a five times higher risk of suffering injury during it. Furthermore, athletes competing in endurance sports had a ten times greater risk of injury or illness during the world championships than those in other types of sports.

“We were surprised that the results were so clear in this study among top-flight athletes. We recommend that the teams include a clinical psychologist, thus enabling the athletes to talk openly about their anxiety for illness or injury when preparing for competitions. It is important that the athletes do not conceal any injuries from their trainers or doctors,” says Toomas Timpka.

Symptoms of illness that increased gradually before competition were more closely associated with the risk of injury during competition. The risk in this case was three times higher than the risk for other athletes. Timpka believes that injuries that arise from overuse and for which the symptoms increase gradually may deceive athletes.

“The athlete has time to change the way in which he or she views the symptoms, and does not experience the same increase in anxiety. Anxiety-arousing signals do not have as strong an impact on athletes who have had problems for a long period. This makes it important to keep a close eye on such athletes,” says Timpka.

In another study, the researchers examined how athletes prepared to compete at high temperature and high humidity, and determined how many were affected by exertional heat illness (EHI).

“From a physiological point of view, carrying out sporting activity in such environmental conditions is not optimal. But it’s not easy to distinguish between ill-health caused by heat stress and the normal consequences of maximum physical exertion in these conditions. The study shows that methods are required to be able to diagnose dangerous EHI during major competitions,” says Timpka.

The findings are published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine.

Source: Linköping University