Athletes that Live with Chronic Pain

It is easy to assume that the lives of athletes are glamorous and pain-free, but the reality is that their constant struggle to remain competitive and in peak physical condition often means they are in chronic pain. Whether it is due to a lifetime of impacts on the playing field, the unending strain that training puts on their bodies, or an unexpected health condition, many of the world’s most famous and successful athletes have had their bouts with chronic pain.

Venus Williams

As a winner of tennis’ most prestigious tournaments, Venus Williams has long been considered a superstar of the sport, so it may surprise you to learn that she is a chronic pain sufferer. In 2011, Venus Williams was diagnosed with an autoimmune disorder known as Sjogren’s Syndrome. This condition causes fatigue and chronic joint pain.

Venus adopted a raw vegan diet that includes leafy greens, nuts, seeds, berries, turmeric, and ginger. She says her diet has helped lower inflammation and joint pain, allowing her to continue playing tennis to this day. In fact, she has added many more trophies to her collection including a gold medal from the 2012 London Olympics.

LeBron James

LeBron James is widely regarded as the premier player in the NBA, but what is less well known is that he has had his encounters with chronic pain. In 2015, James suffered from a serious back issue that sidelined him for two weeks during the middle of the NBA season. In addition to receiving anti-inflammatory shots in his lumbar region, James is constantly seen wearing a lumbar support cushion.

LeBron continues to aggressively treat his back and work to prevent any future flare-ups. He is currently 36 years old and playing spectacularly in his 18th NBA season.

Tiger Woods

The legendary golfer Tiger Woods has had many ups and downs in his career with many of his dips related to various injuries. For many years, he was unable to compete at his best because of chronic lower back pain. After undergoing multiple surgical procedures, including a spinal fusion surgery in 2017, Tiger was finally able to put his pain behind him and went on to win his 15th major golf tournament at the 2019 Masters.

In 2017, Woods was arrested for driving while under the influence. Shortly after the incident, Woods told the media that alcohol was not involved, but rather he had an “unexpected reaction” to pain medications that he had been taking. This led to speculation that he may have an addiction to pain killers.

If You Are an Athlete Living with Ongoing Pain

If you are a professional—or amateur—athlete that is struggling with chronic pain, there are ways to manage it, so that it does not interfere with your sporting goals. In general, most athletes benefit greatly from a multi-disciplinary approach that involves medical, psychological and lifestyle interventions.

It can be difficult for high performance athletes that are conditioned to push through pain to acknowledge that a chronic pain issue is something that requires aggressive treatment. Some athletes merely accept that pain is part of their chosen profession and respond by medicating with pharmaceutical pain killers.

On the other hand, some athletes are able to ignore their pain symptoms, or even use the pain to compete harder. One study from the University of Toronto found that certain athletes can use pain as a motivation to perform better.

For most athletes, however, pain is an obstacle to be removed before peak performance can be achieved. Here are some of the ways pain is mitigated among athletes.

  • Elevation—one of the first responses to an injury is to elevate the point of injury above the heart; if the injury involves a limb, be sure to raise the entire limb so that it is higher than the heart. This prevents excess inflammation which is often a key component of pain.
  • Icing—many patients apply ice incorrectly. You should put ice in a bag, then surround the bag with a towel to prevent frostbite. Only apply ice to the injury for 10 to 15 minutes every hour. Correct use of ice for injuries can make a big difference in long-term pain symptoms.
  • TENS—transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation or TENS uses a low-level electrical current applied to the skin near the pain site to block pain transmissions. You may purchase portable TENS devices for under $100, but you should keep in mind that TENS is not effective for everyone.
  • Acupuncture—many athletes turn to alternative therapies that pose low risk to their bodies like acupuncture. This ancient pain therapy is thought to stimulate endorphin production and is often used in combination with other pain therapies.
  • Yoga—in addition to increasing strength, flexibility and endurance, yoga provides some serious pain relief. One study found that yoga was at least as effective as physical therapy in managing low back pain.
  • Mindfulness meditation—one of the key components of chronic pain is the declining emotional health of the patient. Anxiety and depression can neurologically amplify pain symptoms, so it is important to treat these conditions simultaneously with the pain. Studies show that mindfulness meditation can significantly reduce pain symptoms within just a few weeks.
  • Manual manipulation—many athletes respond positively to massage and soft tissue manipulation. A physical therapist or massage therapist may provide a muscle relaxation session that can release endorphins, loosen muscle knots, and increase joint flexibility.
  • Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug–nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugor NSAIDs like Tylenol or Aleve inhibit the production of prostaglandins which cause swelling and pain. Athletes, however, may want to avoid NSAIDs as they may slow muscle growth and healing.
  • Opioid pain killers—many athletes rely on opioid pain killers following an injury, but it is easy to abuse them and become dependent on them. In many athletic settings where traumatic injury is commonplace, opioids are abused with impunity, but this carries enormous risks including a decline in performance, cardiac health issues, kidney failure and death. If possible, discuss alternatives to opioids with your doctor.
  • Targeting injections— steroid injections can help lower inflammation and relieve pain.
  • Regenerative Medicine— this option can regenerate tissue and accelerate recovery leading to better pain control. 

Article written by: Dr. Robert Moghim – CEO/Founder Colorado Pain Care

M.D. Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are the personal views of Robert Moghim, M.D. and do not necessarily represent and are not intended to represent the views of the company or its employees.  The information contained in this article does not constitute medical advice, nor does reading or accessing this information create a patient-provider relationship.  Comments that you post will be shared with all visitors to this page. The comment feature is not governed by HIPAA and you should not post any of your private health information.