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Can watching your sport following an upper limb injury enhance recovery for return to sport?

1st November 2018
By Lisa Bachmayer

Can watching your sport following an upper limb injury enhance recovery for return to sport?

Sustaining an upper limb injury can be frustrating as we are frequently told to rest the affected body part. What if we could prepare our brain and arm while recovering so that when we re-commence training we are primed to jump back into AFL, netball, boxing, or whatever your activity of choice is? This could potentially be done. Studies show that we have a system in our brain called the mirror-neurone system, which might be useful for aiding our return to activity.  

The mirror neurone system is made up of neurones (or nerve cells) that fire in a similar pattern (like an electrical impulse) when we watch someone doing a meaningful activity, as if we were actually doing it. Have you ever wondered why you can feel so fatigued after watching an action movie? It is in part because of your mirror neurone system. Studies have shown that watching an activity or imagining doing it can activate this system that accounts for twenty-five percent of the cells in the pre-motor cortex of our brain (Iacoboni et al. 2005). (Note: the pre-motor cortex is a brain area that is important in planning movements before we act them out).

Activity observation can also help you to avoid detrimental cortical changes associated with prolonged periods of limb immobilisation. A number of studies have shown that lack of activation of cortico- and sensorimotor regions of the brain that are associated with a limb can impact the size and excitability of this brain area (Langer et al. 2012, Bassolino et al. 2014, Viaro et al. 2014). Whilst observation of a meaningful activity does not activate these brain areas as if you were physically engaged in the activity it has been found to abate these cortical changes.

With this knowledge, it is possible that while taking time on the bench, it is beneficial to your rehabilitation to watch your teammates at games and training, observe professionals play and go over moves in your head, such as game plays or boxing combinations and even review video and technical analyses of the game. You will reinforce templates in your brain for these movements so that once your tissues have healed you can hit the ground running!

Bassolino M., Campanella M., et al. (2014). “Training the motor cortex by observing the actions of others during immobilization.” Cerebral Cortex 24: 3268-3276

Hutchison, W. D., K. D. Davis, et al. (1999). “Pain-related neurons in the human cingulate cortex.” Nature Neuroscience 2: 403-405.

Iacoboni, B. and e. al. (2005). “Grasping the intentions of others with one’s own mirror system.” PLos Biology 3: 529-535.

Langer N, Hänggi J, et al. (2012). “Effects of limb immobilization on brain plasticity.” Neurology 78: 182-188

Viaro R., Budri M., et al. (2014).  “Adaptive changes in the motor cortex during and after longterm forelimb immobilization in adult rats.” Journal of Physiology 592: 2137-2152


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