Musculoskeletal overuse injuries and heart rate variability: Is there a link?

Accurate detection and prevention of overuse musculoskeletal injuries is limited by the nature of somatic tissue injury. In the pathogenesis of overuse injuries, it is well recognized that an abnormal inflammatory response occurs within somatic tissue before pain is perceived which can disrupt the normal remodeling process and lead to subsequent degeneration. Current overuse injury prevention methods focused on biomechanical faults or performance standards lack the sensitivity needed to identify the status of tissue injury or repair. Recent evidence has revealed an apparent increase in the prevalence and impact of overuse musculoskeletal injuries in athletics. When compared to acute injuries, overuse injuries have a potentially greater negative impact on athletes’ overall health burden. Further, return to sport rehabilitation following overuse injury is complicated by the fact that the absence of pain does not equate to complete physiological healing of the injured tissue. Together, this highlights the need for exercise monitoring and injury prevention methods which incorporate assessment of somatic tissue response to loading. One system primarily involved in the activation of pathways and neuromediators responsible for somatic tissue repair is the autonomic nervous system (ANS). Although not completely understood, emerging research supports the critical importance of peripheral ANS activity in the health and repair of somatic tissue injury. Due to its significant contributions to cardiac function, ANS activity can be measured indirectly with heart rate monitoring. Heart rate variability (HRV) is one index of ANS activity that has been used to investigate the relationship between athletes’ physiological response to accumulating training load. Research findings indicated that HRV may provide a reflection of ANS homeostasis, or the body’s stress-recovery status. This noninvasive marker of the body’s primary driver of recovery has the potential to incorporate important and as yet unmonitored physiological mechanisms involved in overuse injury development.

The authors hypothesize that abnormal somatic tissue response to accumulating microtrauma may modulate ANS activity at the level of HRV. Exploring the link between HRV modulation and somatic tissue injury has the potential to reveal the putative role of ANS homeostasis on overuse musculoskeletal injury development.