The Pain Barrier

I recently saw a news article about a basketball player who suffered a fractured wrist early on in a game. He continued to play. Apparently he also spent the day on an IV drip owing to illness, and it was uncertain whether he would play at all. This got me thinking about sports injuries, and the attitude towards them from players, coaches, and spectators.

In New Zealand, there are a lot of stories of this ilk (playing on with a serious injury), mainly about various All Blacks (the NZ mens rugby team, for those not in the know). One notable example being the current captain, who—amongst other things—admits to concealing a broken foot in order to keep playing in the World Cup in 2011. Rather than being called out for this, it enhanced his reputation as a “real man”. Similar tales have assumed somewhat mythical status (google Wayne “Buck” Shelford or Colin Meads for other examples).

Which is probably a bad thing.

Why? Well, another way in which sports injuries have been in the news recently has been due to the treatment of concussions*. More care is being taken to ensure players don’t end up with permanent brain damage, which is a very good thing. It’s becoming expected that if you take a blow to the noggin, you get checked, and players aren’t allowed back until they’ve been medically cleared. All very sensible, and laudable.

If only the same attitude were applied to other serious issues. Sadly, there’s still too much of a “man up!” attitude in a lot of sports, and so players keep on, risking worsening their injury, or even doing themselves permanent harm, because they don’t want to be seen as weak or uncommitted.

In fairness to the players, injuries are often exaggerated (particularly by the media—the more drama the better), and I know from experience that breaking a bone may not hurt a lot at first (once you relax for a few minutes, and the adrenalin wears of, though…). Plus, for minor injuries (e.g. scrapes and bruises) it is valuable to be able to ignore it and carry on. That’s why there needs to be medical staff who are able to be objective**. Take the decision away from the player (they can keep their never-back-down image intact), and either patch them up, or pull them out as necessary.

Attempting to continue with a serious injury is heroic if the alternative is death. If the alternative is losing a game, it’s foolhardy.

(By the way, this post has focused on sportsmen. I’m sure the same issue affects sportswomen, but it’s exacerbated by the whole “real men don’t show weakness” guff.)

* In contact sports, like rugby or gridiron. It’s somewhat rarer in table-tennis.

** No human being can be completely objective, but the medics will hopefully be focused on the players’ health first and foremost.