Thursday, June 7, 2012

Increased Pain Tolerance of Martial Artists

I've just completed the first draft of my final article. The subject matter is pain. Pain is ubiquitous in all activities associated with preparing a person to survive a violent encounter. Avoiding it, inflicting it, threatening to inflict it, tolerating it, and using it as a learning tool. Pain and the threat of pain are major tools in law enforcement's less-than-lethal armory. However, you'll be hard pressed to find any explanation of pain and the pain process in the literature related to the activities associated with preparing a person to survive a violent encounter.

I thought I'd share two studies which found that athletes have a higher pain tolerance than non-athletes, and contact athletes have a higher pain tolerance than non-contact athletes who have a higher pain tolerance than non-athletes. The following is an extract from my draft article:
There is evidence that athletes have higher pain tolerance levels than non-athletes. To live with minor or major injuries and to practice or play with pain seems to be almost certain and acceptable experiences in the life of sportsmen and sportswomen. Studies have shown that athletes seem to have similar pain thresholds but higher pain tolerance when compared to non-athletes. The exact cause of their higher pain tolerance is unknown. Ryan and Kovacic (1966) compared the pain tolerance levels of contact athletes (football players, boxers, and wrestlers), non-contact athletes, and non-athletes. They found that the contact athletes had a higher pain tolerance than non-contact athletes who in turn had a higher pain tolerance than non-athletes. They discussed three possible explanations for their findings:

1. Two culturally determined attitudes influencing pain perception: pain expectancy and pain acceptance. Pain expectancy is anticipation of pain as being unavoidable in a given situation and pain acceptance is the willingness to experience pain. The contact athletes, and to a lesser extend the non-contact athletes, have frequently been in situations where pain was unavoidable. For these athletes, the ability to tolerate pain is seen as being essential to successful performance and is socially valued. On the other hand, non-athletes have much less often been in situations where pain was unavoidable and thus have not associated ability to tolerate pain with socially desirable traits or characteristics.

2. The realistic evaluation of the significance of pain with contact athletes having a more realistic evaluation and less fear of pain than non-athletes. Previous experience with pain allows the contact athletes to distinguish between harmful pain and non-harmful pain. The non-athletes, having limited experience with painful stimulation, would be less apt to know how ‘serious’ the pain actually was, and thus, due to apprehension, tolerate less.

3. Certain individuals tend to reduce the intensity of their pain perceptions subjectively while others tend to augment the intensity of their pain perceptions. The reducers tolerate pain well, the augmenters poorly.

Kolt (2000) suggests two general explanations for higher pain tolerance in athletes compared to non-athletes:

1. Athletes have a greater exposure to physical training and increased fitness, resulting in higher levels of circulating endogenous opiods.

2. Athletes, as part of their physical training and performance explore boundaries in relation to extreme physical activity and pain experience, giving a perception of control over the pain-physical activity interface.
This is possibly one of those benefits that may arise from training martial arts that is applicable to other realms of our daily lives. A more realistic understanding of pain and a greater acceptance of pain influences the experience of pain in other non-martial arts areas.

I recall a student who went on to become involved in the security industry. He once shares with me his surprise at how much punishment he could absorb and put it down to the falls that he experienced in his jujutsu training. Constantly impacting the mat with varying degrees of force. His higher tolerance of pain resulting from this type of training could be explained by the above explanations.

I 'borrowed' the pain image to the above right from a martial arts related blog whose post was discussing the conquering of pain. While the blog provides some information about how to conquer pain, it does not provide information on what pain is or the pain process. Information that provides us with the opportunity of more effectively managing pain.

Stress training, stress inoculation training, and stress exposure training are all methods used by law enforcement and the military to enhance operational performance. The typical stress program involves three stages with the first being an informational stage where stress and its effects are studied. 'Research suggests that preparatory information regarding a potential threatening event can less negative reactions to that event' (Driskell et al 2008: 274).

Stress is an ambiguous concept. I've integrated the concepts and theories of the stress discipline and emotion discipline, which are studying the same concept but focusing on different elements in the process and not referring to each other's work, to develop an understanding of our evolved survival process. Pain is part of our evolved survival process. It can be a reaction to a stimulus (stress) or it can be the stimulus (stressor) that generates its own responses. It is beyond the scope of this post, indeed any typical post, to fully explain this concept, but the same ideas that are used to manage stress, e.g. information provision in stage one, are applicable to managing pain.
In Explain Pain, Butler and Moseley (2003) suggest we remember that ‘knowledge is the great liberator!’ (111), and explain that education and understanding is the primary step in the management of pain. They refer to various studies that have shown that education results in changes in pain beliefs and attitudes, alter pain conditions and physical performance, and increase pain thresholds during physical tasks. Moseley (2005) provided a case study which demonstrated that pain physiology education markedly reduced widespread brain activity characteristic of a pain experience.


  1. How does this address the effects of the adrenaline dump regarding pain?

  2. Hi Charles. Thanks for the comment. Your question is a really interesting question. One I've currently referred to as the 'Fighting Methods SIA Paradox' in the article I've drafted. SIA being stress-induced analgesia which you are referring to. Given you've raised the question, I'll devote my next post to this issue.

  3. I wonder how much of the this is actually due to selection effects. Sports may cause increased pain tolerance, but it seems quite plausible that people are more likely to participate in (contact) sports if they already have high pain tolerance.

  4. Beo, thanks for the comment. The old 'nature or nurture' argument. Definite possibility, but not investigated in the abovementioned studies. A possibility that raises so many questions, but for which there are precious few answers at this time.

  5. Hi John,

    Great article. I've often told my wife that one of the best ways to "change your relationship with pain" is through martial arts training (she suffers from car accident related back pain).

    Nice to find an actual study to back up my previously anecdotal opinion.

  6. TSK. Thank you. My 'mission' is starting to take firmer shape. It is, like biomechanics generally, is about understanding the whys of the hows. They may change the how on occassion, and often only incrementally, but it's more about understanding the whys, and with authoritative support. The practice is valid, as is your anecdotal opinion, but now it is informed opinion rather than just anecdotal. Your comment confirms the validity of my work. So thank you.

  7. Martial arts are extremely effective at developing muscle force. When the muscles are exposed to high forces, connective tissues that surround your joints are also strengthened which results in an extreme tolerance to pain.

  8. Interesting blog. This is one of my favorite blog also I want you to update more post like this. Thanks for sharing this article.
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  9. This post was extremely useful. I was curious as to the difference in perceived pain from the same stimulus between me and friends. I knew it was from practicing karate, but only an in depth answer like this one could have satisfied me.


Your comments make my work all the more relevant as I use them to direct my research and theorising. Thank you.