Haverford Athletes Are the Subject of Research On Pain and Competition Stress
Gymnast Kerri Strug's remarkable performance in the 1996 summer Olympics in Atlanta may seem as far removed from the Haverford academic experience as a balance beam in a psychology lab.
But for 1997 graduates Masilo Grant and Deborah Bailin and their faculty advisor Wendy Sternberg, Strug's ability to land a crucial, gold medal-winning vault on an injured ankle is a matter of pure neuroscience.
Under the guidance of Sternberg, an assistant professor of psychology, Masilo and Bailin conducted experiments to prove what both scientists and the general public have long suspected. Athletes like Strug under extreme competitive stress respond and experience pain differently than folks who happen to stub their toe while leisurely walking down the street.
"We've all seen people in specific pressure situations overcome pain to perform amazing feats. And we've all attributed this ability in athletes to this same phenomenon," explained Sternberg. "But nobody has ever gone right to the athlete and tested them for this during an athletic event."
So last winter and spring Sternberg and her students decided it was time to pay a visit to Haverford's mens and womens basketball, fencing and track teams during the heat of competition. Their goal was to assess whether competitive and physical stress during sporting events induces a natural analgesia where hormonal and neurochemical mechanisms inhibit an athlete's ability to feel excessive pain.
Several times during the athletic seasons, the scientists tested the volunteer athletes just minutes after competition as well as two days before and after the same game. They hoped to determine whether during competition the athletes experienced different pain thresholds and different sensory and emotional responses to pain. In each testing session, the experimenters first asked the volunteers to immerse their hand in a tank filled with cold water and to provide ratings for the intensity of the pain and the overall unpleasantness of such an experience. experimenters then applied a warming heat stick first on the athletes' fingertips, and later on the forearm, and asked them to remove their arm when the sensation first became painful.
Their experiment yielded winning results. Sternberg said athletes in the midst of intense competition were much more tolerant of the pain caused from cold than when they were at rest. They also discovered that sensitivity to pain from heat decreased on the forearms during competition, however, it actually increased in the fingertips.
"These results are interesting because they demonstrate that pain sensations are, indeed, significantly altered by competition situations, and they provide further evidence that the brain can profoundly modulate incoming pain sensations in response to particular situations," Sternberg wrote in an abstract to the American Society of Neuroscience.
Sternberg believes the results are not only important for neuroscience, but also for athletes at any level of competition - whether they are children on a soccer team or professional athletes.
"The results of this study seem to suggest that self-report of pain during athletic competition may not always be indicative of the true nature of injury," Sternberg said, noting athletes may misjudge the severity of an injury and continue to play in a game, thus causing further damage.
The research was presented by Bailin, Sternberg and her collaborator Richard Gracely of the National Institutes of Health at the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience in New Orleans in October. The group hopes the results will eventually be published. But their research is by no means over.
"We hope to study people in other types of competitive situations such as chess games and video games," explained Sternberg. "That way we can determine if it is really just any type of competition that causes this or whether you really need competition plus physical exertion for this response."