A new Swedish study finds that elite female athletes with a history of sexual or physical abuse face a much greater risk of injury compared to those without a history of abuse.

Earlier in 2018, the Athletics Research Center at Linköping University published a report commissioned by the Swedish Athletics Association that surveyed sexual abuse within Swedish athletics. The new study, however, is the first to investigate the actual consequences of sexual and physical abuse among athletes.

“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?” said Dr. Toomas Timpka, professor in the department of medical and health sciences and head of the study.

“We wanted to investigate whether abuse is connected to the high degree of overuse injuries that we see in competitive athletics.”

Of the 197 participants in the study, 11 percent had experienced sexual abuse at some point in their lives, and 18 percent had experienced physical abuse. In female athletes, physical abuse brings a 12 times higher risk of sports injury. Sexual abuse involves an eight times higher high risk for non-sports injury.

The correlation between abuse and an increase in the risk of injury is most clear in female athletes.

“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,” says Timpka.

“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.”

Epidemiological studies in sports and other sports-focused medicine have traditionally been targeted on the musculoskeletal system, while sports psychology has focused on performance.

Timpka is looking for innovative thinking in the field. He points out that several factors may explain differences in performance, and it is important to deal with emotional scars that may have been left by, for example, abuse.

“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.”

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

Source: Linköping University