Does Emotional Trauma Increase Sports Injury Risk?

Athletes, especially top-level athletes, know that competitive play carries a risk of injury. The risks can be mitigated with proper physical training. But what about the lasting damage from physical or sexual abuse? Can those scars increase the risk of injury, too?

Scientists at the Athletics Research Center at Linkoping University in Sweden asked that same question. The answer was surprising.


Their research found a connection between sexual or physical abuse during the lifetime of high-level athletes and an increased risk of a sports-related injury. This correlation was particularly strong among female athletes.

Published in 2018, this was the first study to delve into the physical and other consequences of physical and sexual abuse for high-level athletes. The data was drawn from an earlier survey of Swedish athletes regarding sexual and physical abuse.


“We wanted not only to repeat our study into the presence of abuse, but also examine what it means for the athlete. How does a traumatic event influence athletic performance? We wanted to investigate whether abuse is connected to the high degree of overuse injuries that we see in competitive athletics,” says Toomas Timpka, professor in the Department of Medical and Health Sciences and head of the study, which was published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine.

The key question of the study was “does physical or sexual abuse during an athlete’s lifetime increase the risk of sports-related or non-sports injuries? The study had 197 participants. 18 percent had experienced physical abuse at some point in their lives, while 11 percent had experienced sexual abuse.


The correlation between sexual or physical abuse and injury was most clear among female athletes. Female athletes who had experienced physical abuse during their lifetime were had a risk of sports-related injury 12 times higher than athletes without physical abuse in their lifetime. For female athletes with experience of sexual abuse, the risk of non-sports injury was 8 times higher.

“Many aspects of the correlation are also seen in self-injurious behavior. We can see in both young women and young men that they tend to blame themselves. The athletes carry the trauma inside themselves, and take risks that can eventually lead to overuse injury. At the same time, it’s important to remember that not all female athletes who suffer from long-term injuries have been subject to abuse. These injuries arise in interaction between many factors, which differ from one individual to another,” says Toomas Timpka.


In the past, injury studies related to sports medicine and related physical medicine fields have focused on the musculoskeletal system. Performance has been the focus of studies in the sports psychology field. Timpka believes there is more to the performance picture than meets the eye. He believes that it is important to address emotional scars such as those left by abuse to maximize athletic performance.

“We hope that our study can pave the way for a new multidisciplinary research area within sports medicine. We can gain new insights with the aid of clinical psychologists and child psychiatrists who participate in sports medicine research.”

My own experience as a strength and performance coach leads me to agree with Timpka. There is much more to any athlete than muscle, bone and brainpower. Emotions play a strong role in sports performance. It makes sense, then, that emotional scars may impede an athlete’s performance. According to this research, they may have more visible effects, too.

Keep the faith and keep after it!

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Journal Reference – Toomas Timpka, Staffan Janson, Jenny Jacobsson, Örjan Dahlström, Armin Spreco, Jan Kowalski, Victor Bargoria, Margo Mountjoy, Carl Göran Svedin. Lifetime history of sexual and physical abuse among competitive athletics (track and field) athletes: cross sectional study of associations with sports and non-sports injury. British Journal of Sports Medicine, 2018; bjsports-2018-099335 DOI: 10.1136/bjsports-2018-099335

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