Psychology of Injury: 4 Ideas to Ease Rehabilitation

The psychology of injury is a highly relevant topic to sports medicine professionals because we largely work with injuries. Although we make our careers out of helping people through injury, our patients likely have a much different relationship with injury. To them injury is devastating, and it is our job to help them return to activity. Here are four key ideas from the psychology of injury to help you guide patients through the injury continuum of care:

1. Reasons

Believe it or not, there are contributing factors, or reasons, why people get injured. Some reasons are psychological in nature and have been shown to increase the likelihood of injury.

Stress and anxiety can be key contributors to injury risk. Think about it: if you are a person experiencing a significant amount of stress and anxiety, the likely result is one of, or a combination of, two things:

  1. Your body is going to experience physiological tension, which increases the likelihood of injury.
  2. You’re distracted by stress, so your focus isn’t 100% on the physical task.

As such, it is important to help our athletes decrease stress and tension in a positive way.

2. Reaction

Unfortunately injury is possible even if we reduce stress and anxiety in our lives. Individual reactions to injury differ depending on a variety of reasons:

  • Psychological– The person’s level of anxiety changes their reaction to injury.
  • Financial– Concerns over money can influence a reaction.
  • Social– If their only social support is through sport, a person can struggle.
  • Logistical– Time of injury and whether it is a repeat injury alters a response.

There can be many other factors. Not everyone is going to react to injury in the same way; hence, it is important to keep these different variables in mind.

3. Rehabilitation

The same variables that influence individual reactions to injury also influence their approach to rehabilitation. A key intervention is finding what motivates the athlete and aligning with it.

Rehabilitation can be a grind. Sometimes the athlete will feel it and other times they won’t. Our job as professionals is not only to provide guidance on the physical aspect of rehabilitation, but also to serve as the cheerleader, coach, or drill sergeant. You need to find a way to keep the athlete engaged in the process – finding their motivation is critical!

4. Return

Just because an athlete appears physically ready to return to play, and is physically cleared to do so by a physician, they are not out of the woods yet. In fact, there are stories of athletes hesitating to return due to anxiety, low confidence, and fear of re-injury. We should be aware of this reality and open up a validating, empathetic dialogue with these athletes to discuss what might be holding them back. This is often an appropriate time to refer them to a sport psychologist to help untangle their psychological resistance to returning.

Injury is often a devastating time for athletes as they can be consumed with emotion, physical pain, and logistical frustrations. As healthcare professionals, we are well aligned to be a beacon of light during this time of darkness. By understanding these key ideas about the psychology of injury, we can match where an athlete is on the injury continuum and help them through the process.

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