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Past abuse associated with higher sports injury risk

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Top-flight athletes who have experienced sexual or physical abuse at some time in their life have a greater risk of sports-related injury, according to new research.

The Swedish study is the first of its kind to investigate the consequences of sexual and physical abuse for athletes. It comes after an earlier report that surveyed sexual abuse within Swedish athletics.

“We wanted not only to repeat our study into the presence of abuse, but also examine what it means for the athlete,” explained study leader Toomas Timpka, professor in the Department of Medical and Health Sciences at Linköping University. “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.”

Of the 197 athletes who took part in the study, 11% had experienced sexual abuse in the past, and 18% had experienced physical abuse.

Analysing the results, the researchers found a greater correlation between abuse and increased injury risk among female athletes. Physical abuse was associated with a 12 times higher risk of sports injury, while sexual abuse involved an eight times higher risk for non-sports injury.

Timpka said: “Many aspects of the correlation are also seen in self-injurious behaviour. 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.”

The findings, published in British Journal of Sports Medicine, suggest that dealing with emotional scars that may have been left by abuse could help athletes reduce their injury risk and improve their performance.