Triathletes Lose Their Advantageous Pain Modulation under Acute Psychosocial Stress

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Abstract

Introduction

Triathletes, who constantly engage in intensely stressful sport, were recently found to exhibit greater pain tolerance and more efficient pain inhibition capabilities than nonathletes. However, pain inhibition correlated negatively with retrospective reports of mental stress during training and competition. The aim of the current study was to test pain inhibition capabilities of triathletes under acute, controlled psychological stress manipulation.

Methods

Participants were 25 triathletes and ironman triathletes who underwent the measurement of pain threshold, pain intolerance, tonic suprathreshold pain, and conditioned pain modulation before and during exposure to the Montreal Imaging Stress Task (MIST). Perceived ratings of stress and anxiety, autonomic variables, and salivary cortisol levels were obtained as indices of stress.

Results

The MIST induced a significant stress reaction manifested in the subjective and objective indices. Overall, a significant reduction in pain threshold and in conditioned pain modulation efficacy was observed after the MIST, which reached the baseline levels observed previously in nonathletes. Paradoxically, the magnitude of this stress-induced hyperalgesia (SIH) correlated negatively with the magnitude of the stress response; low-stress responders exhibited greater SIH than high-stress responders.

Conclusion

The results suggest that under acute psychological stress, triathletes not only react with SIH and a reduction in pain modulation but also lose their advantageous pain modulation over nonathletes. The stronger the stress response recorded, the weaker the SIH. It appears that triathletes are not resilient to stress, responding with an increase in the sensitivity to pain as well as a decrease in pain inhibition. The possible effects of athletes' baseline pain profile and stress reactivity on SIH are discussed.

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