The Use of Healing Imagery and Pain Management Imagery in Injured Athletes

Tuesday, November 17th, 2020

By: Jordan Stewart 

 

Not everyone gets the opportunity to suit up for one more game or practice. Time goes by so fast and you never know when an injury will strike and take you out of the game. Being able to participate in the game you love is an honor and being part of an individual or team sport is indescribable. Being an athlete, highs and lows are inevitable and can have a major impact on an individual. As an athlete, many skills are taught and learned to allow for individuals to cope and succeed in a healthy manner. Some skills that athletes may learn include time management, responsibility, control, and many other important lessons and experiences that allow individuals to grow and to improve. Skills for overcoming an injury are not often the forefront of conversation when teaching an athlete to be successful. Without adversity and learning how to cope with it, athletes often lose their love for the game. With the help of sport psychology, athletes can continue to elevate athletic ability by focusing on the mental piece of performance and rehabilitation. 

 

Unfortunately, injuries are part of being an athlete and will likely affect the majority of individuals. Sometimes, enduring an injury can sideline you for a few days. Othertimes, it can take you away from the game for months or even a full season. Understanding the differences in each individual and their biological makeup allows us to be aware that each athlete will react differently to injury — no matter the severity. When athletes are cleared, they are physiologically cleared, meaning that the athlete is allowed to go back to full contact and no restrictions because the injury is healed. On the other hand, psychologically speaking, the athlete may not be ready to return. Athletes are typically eager to get back into their sport after an injury. However, when they are finally able to participate again, the feeling isn’t quite the same. When performance isn’t familiar upon return, athletes may be discouraged and upset, which may lead to aggravation and loss of passion for the game. This could furthermore lead to the athlete portraying symptoms of depression and anxiety. 

 

In the past, the psychological piece of healing has been severely overlooked, which in turn has the potential to cause the athletes’ performance to be tentative or hesitant when returning to play. Within the last few years, the field of sport psychology has grown substantially. The growth of sport psychology allows for medical professionals and athletic trainers to see the importance of a positive and understanding force to guide an athlete along in the healing process. Sport psychology also provides different techniques that will stick with the athlete even after the individual has recovered from the injury and is ultimately done with the sport. With that being said, it is very important to implement a variety of skills and techniques that can allow the athlete to have optimum performance when the athlete returns to play. An example of some skills and techniques involve goal setting, imagery, relaxation techniques, self-talk, and social support (Kamphoff, 2013).

 

Imagery is a very useful technique in the healing process. Cumming and Ramsey state that imagery can be described as, “…an experience that mimics real experience, and involves using a combination of different sensory modalities in the absence of actual perception”. An example of this may involve sitting and closing your eyes, imagining you are sprinting after a ball and your knee is stable, strong, and healthy with no pain. It is going through the rehearsal of the skills your mind has already mastered and refined — which can be another really important piece in recovery. An article from Psychology of Sport and Exercise describes imagery as having four different types: cognitive, motivational, healing, and pain management. The imagery that seems the most intriguing in regards to the rehabilitation process is healing imagery and pain management imagery (Wesch, 2016). 

 

Healing imagery symbolizes recovery, meaning that one can picture the body healing (Dworsky & Krane). When imaging healing, it is the process of  “watching” broken bones fuse or muscles and ligaments start to slowly intertwine and become healed. According to AASP, to develop healing imagery, asking oneself a multitude of questions regarding images that associate with injury and pain will imitate the feeling. Therefore, imagining being strong, mobile, and healthy, can allow one to feel healthy (Dworsky & Krane). Imagery is such a powerful technique that it actually allows bodies to heal more quickly and return to sport sooner with less fear of re-injury. Imagery allows individuals to put a positive mental note in their head of healing, getting better, and having an opportunity to perform better than before. This positive mindset allows healing to quicken and confidence to build. 

 

On the contrary, there is also negative imagery. Negative imagery can include visualizing a sport and, for example, you kick the ball and miss the net. Another example would be coming off of a shoulder injury and the other team hitting you, resulting in you re-injuring your shoulder. Negative thoughts and images reduce healing and confidence. Being positive about certain situations is definitely not easy, but through the use of the various types of imagery, it may make the healing process quicker and more effective.

 

Another type of imagery that athletes’ can use is pain-management imagery. This type of imagery allows an individual to be more aware of what is painful and what is hurting within their body. It allows one to use their mind to imagine the muscles relaxing and being put to ease. Imagine ending a week of hard practice and walking down the stairs is a difficult task. Visualize the tight muscles relaxing and finally being able to sit and stand without wincing in pain. Visualizing the various muscles and fibers relaxing actually leads to tense muscles calming down and reducing pain within your body. AASP mentions that “sometimes it is helpful to distract yourself from thinking about pain (Dworsky & Krane)”. Distractions from pain could consist of visualizing something one thinks is relaxing. For example, laying under the sun or listening to the birds chirp in the morning while drinking coffee. Imagery will differ from person to person, but it can allow you to be calm, collected, and relaxed. 

 

Combining pain and healing imagery allows the athlete to heal quicker and more effectively. Using imagery and medicine can make a world of a difference in the healing process. Imagery itself will not make the injury heal quicker, but using imagery along with a rehabilitation plan will allow the athlete to return to the sport strong and confident. Another piece that sport psychologists touch on with imagery is having a positive outlook and an open mind to imagery itself. Having an open mind and an understanding of what imagery is may make it more effective in terms of the healing process. Imagery is a great tool to use, especially when it is being used positively. Being able to take responsibility, understand the given situation, and be aware of the progress within their rehabilitation program is a big step in the healing process. Being aware and not letting the injury define you or take you away from the sport that is beloved is a great way to have success in the recovery process. The positive thoughts will allow an athlete to become a stronger, more patient, and a more understanding person. 

 

References:

 

Dworsky, D., & Krane, V. (2018). Using the Mind to Heal the Body: Imagery for Injury Rehabilitation. https://appliedsportpsych.org/resources/injury-rehabilitation/using-the-mind-to-heal-the-body-imagery-for-injury-rehabilitation/ 

Tubilleja, K. (2005). Sport psychology strategies, types of social support, and adherence to injury rehabilitation among university student-athletes. Dissertation Abstracts International: Section B: The Sciences and Engineering. ProQuest Information & Learning.

Kamphoff, C. S., Thomae, J., & Hamson-Utley, J. J. (2013). Integrating the psychological and physiological aspects of sport injury rehabilitation: Rehabilitation profiling and phases of rehabilitation. In M. Arvinen-Barrow & N. Walker (Eds.), The psychology of sport injury and rehabilitation. (pp. 134–155). New York, NY: Routledge/Taylor & Francis Group.

Walker, N., & Hudson, J. (2013). Self-talk in sport injury rehabilitation. In M. Arvinen-Barrow & N. Walker (Eds.), The psychology of sport injury and rehabilitation. (pp. 103–116). New York, NY: Routledge/Taylor & Francis Group 

Wesch, N., Callow, N., Hall, C., & Pope, J. P. (2016). Imagery and self-efficacy in the injury context. Psychology of Sport and Exercise, 24, 72–81. https://doi-org./10.1016/j.psychsport.2015.12.007

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