Injury risk of female athletes ‘linked to abuse’

The risk of injury among female track and field athletes can be linked to their history of sexual and/or physical abuse, a Swedish study claims today.

An observational study led by Linköping University, in Linköping, involved 507 of Sweden’s top performing adult and junior field and track athletes, who were asked to report any sporting injuries that had forced them to drop out of competition and/or training for at least three weeks, as well as any non-sporting injuries that had required medical treatment in the previous 12 months.

They were also asked to reveal if they had ever been sexually or physically abused, and by whom.

Of the 197 (39%) complete responses received, about one in 10 (11%) said they had been sexually abused. Women were about three times as likely as men to report this (16% compared with 4%).

According to the research which is published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, the athletes reported that the abusers included coaches and, in late teens, peers, which, says the researchers, suggests a more nuanced picture than that of the older male coach assaulting younger athletes.

Physical abuse was more common, with nearly one in five reporting that they had been physically abused. Men more likely than women to report this – 23% compared with 14%.

Gay/bisexual athletes were also more likely to report lifetime physical abuse than their straight peers. Physical abusers were predominantly parents/guardians.

The prevalence of sports injuries within the preceding year was just over 55%, and that of non-sporting injuries just under 17%.

Analysis of the data showed that when potentially influential factors were accounted for, physical abuse was associated with a more than 12-fold heightened risk of sustaining a sports injury among female athletes, even though physical abuse was more common among male athletes. No such heightened risk was observed among the men.

A history of sexual abuse was associated with an almost nine-fold increased risk of a non-sporting injury among the women, after taking account of potentially influential factors.

Among the men, frequent drinking was associated with a 6.5-fold increased risk while getting into athletics after the age of 13 was associated with a significantly lower (91%) risk.

Although this study is observational and cannot prove causality, they say: “Our results underscore the importance of lifetime abuse and other emotional indicators in the comprehension of injuries sustained by competitive athletes.”

Athletes should be routinely screened for, and encouraged to disclose, abuse, so that they can be offered appropriate help and support, they suggest.

Timpka T, Janson S, Jacobsson J et al. Lifetime history of sexual and physical abuse among competitive athletics (track and field) athletes: cross sectional study of associations with sports and non-sports injury. British Journal of Sports Medicine September 2018; doi 10.1136/bjsports-2018-099335

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