Tattoos lose the ashes

Tattoos lose The Ashes for Australia (a hypothesis)
England has just soundly beaten Australia, on Australian soil, in a 5 game series of test cricket. This is the first time this has happened for nearly a quarter of a century. For our non cricketing audience, this competition is known as “The Ashes” and each game can last for 5 days. While deep down, we are quite fond of the “poms” as we call the English, we don’t like losing to them at all, especially in games they invent such as cricket and rugby, even darts.

There has been quite a bit of clinical reasoning going on in Australia about this loss, but while watching a recent match I couldn’t help ponder on the possible role of tattoos in Australia’s dismal performance.

Tattoos and performance
Two poorly performed and inconsistent players in the Australian team during the test matches were the batsman and vice captain Michael Clarke (left) and the strike left arm fast bowler Mitchell Johnson on the right. They both have recetattoos.

noi notes on tattoos lose the ashes
Clarke has a number of tattoos including one with the initials (LB) of an ex girlfriend tattooed on his shoulder. Johnson has a “sleeve” on his right arm and an abdominal tattoo.

Clarke and Johnson are world class cricketers with world class statistics but in recent years their form has suffered. Note in the graphs below, how their performance approximately relates to when the players had recent tattoos.

noi notes on tattoos lose the ashes

What is it about a tattoo?
Any hypothesis should be made on a foundation of basic sciences. Our suggestion is that a tattoo may alter the representation of the tattooed body part in the brain, essentially the” meaning” of the body part in the brain, leading to a motor sensory incongruence resulting in perturbed motor output. Clarke and Johnson have had perturbed cricket motor outputs this season which may well have recruited mirror neurone complexes in teammates and perhaps altered their performances.

Tattoos are usually done with great meaning, thought, expense and prior contemplation and they usually hurt, especially in areas that have large representations in the brain. Tattooed feet hurt more than shoulders. Large tattoos can take weeks to finish. No doubt the tattoo owner will have altered emotions and thoughts about the tattooed limb – perhaps, proud, excited, hypervigilant ,maybe a bit ashamed later on. The limb is surely embodied a little differently in the brain. Altered emotions and thoughts about the limb will be also be affected by other people’s attitudes to the tattoo. While tattoos are increasingly regarded as cool, especially by younger people (Rooks et al 2000), a dragon tattoo on a young woman will still evoke more negativity about the person than if she was not tattooed (Resenhoeft et al 2008).

Tattoos, the brain and perturbed motor outputs
When a person plans and executes a motor output such as bowling a cricket ball or playing a cricket shot (and there is an infinite variety of both which could be executed by these elite athletes) the brain calls on various sources of reference to execute the most appropriate output. References could be considered external such as state of the pitch, state of the match, opposing cricketers’ actions and current climate. They could also be internal such as memories, cognitions, fatigue, and pain. The cricketer will not even be aware of some of references called upon and the brain will be continually seeking feedback from the references (How is that sore elbow, what is the opposing team doing, will it rain?) One of the references will be the somatosensory maps –i.e. the sensory neurotags representing the arm in the brain. Most readers will be aware that these brain maps change continually but may alos change significantly with altered inputs (Pascual-Leone and Torres 1993; Flor 2000; Duffau 2006). The suggestion here is that the altered inputs into the embodiment schema of the tattooed body part of the cricketers may be enough to create a sensory motor incongruence leading to perturbed output in cricket. It may only be minor to lead to significant perturbed output in a high performance athlete when dealing with a cricket ball travelling at 150Kph. Perturbed outputs may not only be altered motor performance, they could be sensory disturbances, even inflammation (?bursitis) which again impact on the embodiment of the arm in the brain.

I would even suggest that the current state of happiness with the tattoo and its meaning, may reflect on the sports performance at that moment. I also suggest that a much loved and integrated tattoo may even enhance the finery of the representation of the limb in the brain and even improve motor outputs. -David

Your turn
Of course – this is all hypothesis. We are keen to hear reader’s comments and also we will give a prize of an Explain Pain to
(a) the person who picks the best hole in the hypothesis and
(b) the person who provides the best supportive evidence for the hypothesis.

There is an ‘out there’ conference coming up called NOI 2012, in Adelaide, and you can expect to hear more. You’ll have the chance to see live tattooing in action and contemplate its meaning.

Duffau H. Brain plasticity: from therapeutic mechanisms to therapeutiuc applications. Journal of Clinical Neuroscience 2006;13:885-897.
Flor H. The functional organization of the brain in chronic pain. Prog Brain Res 2000;129:313-322.
Pascual-Leone A, Torres F. Plasticity of the sensorimotor cortex representation of the reading finger of braille readers. Brain 1993;116:39-52.
Resenhoeft A et al. (2008) J Am Coll Health 56: 593
Rooks JK et al (2000) Minn Med 83: 24

Another legendary NOI Instructor
Bob Johnson NOI InstructorBob Johnson is based in Chicago and has been a ‘nerve-head’ for a really long time. He has taught with David Butler and the NOI team since 1999 and teaches all NOI courses in numerous places around the world.

On top of organising continuing education courses, he is co-owner and clinical director of Achieve Orthopedic Rehab Institute which has seven out-patient offices and focus on manual therapy & exercise interventions for acute/chronic pain of the spine and extremities. Bob has been practicing since 1979 and currently directs an APTA credentialed Orthopedic physical therapy residency program.

Bob is a former faculty member of Northwestern University Medical School and past Chair of the Orthopedic Specialty Council, American Board of Physical Therapy Specialties. Bob is also a current adjunct faculty member for the University of Southern California Spine Fellowship program.

Bob has just returned from a 5 week trek in Nepal. He loves ribs (with extra sauce), likes to get to work on bike and bus and is inspired with every new morning.

Achieve Orthopedic Rehabilitation Institute

Bob next instructs:
Clinical Applications: Lower limb and lumbar spine on 26th March, Chicago, US
Neurodynamics and the Neuromatrix on 9th April, Chicago, US
Enquire about and find more of Bob’s courses here



10 Responses to “Tattoos lose the ashes”

  1. Karen Says:

    According to google image search; Johnson was tattooless in 2006. He apparently go the right arm sleeve tattoo before June 2010 when he missed a tournament that was blamed on an elbow infection caused by that sleeve tattoo. Also mentioned in the article was past training injury.

    The punters have his collapse beginning in 2009 and mention him being wildly inconsistent. He apparently has a delicate neuromatrix. I would investigate the elbow injury in light of this paper: J Clin Neuromuscul Dis. 2011 Mar;12(3):118-21. Hyperalgesia after volar wrist tattoo: a case of complex regional pain syndrome? Morte PD, Magee LM. From Lawrence Neurology, Lawrence, KS.

    I would also suggest a RCT designed using cohorts receiving ink tattoo, skin stimulation no ink, kinesio tape, control group no tape, tattoo. Salivary cortisol is a good indicator to measure the HPA response to a stressor [1]. Measured pre tattoo, post tattoo, pre match, post match.

    [1] Physiol Behav. 2011 Mar 1;102(3-4):259-65. Epub 2010 Nov 23.
    Endocrine response of gilts to various common stressors: a comparison of indicators and methods of analysis. Merlot E, Mounier AM, Prunier A.

  2. Joy Colangelo Says:

    How about considering the location of the tat and the area of the brain that lights up during fMRI? For instance, the shoulders are linked to limbic, the knees tempoparietal (that’s why we kneel to pray — well, I don’t because I’m a devout atheist, so devout in fact that I don’t even believe other people believe in god otherwise they would act better but I digress). Tempoparietal is where we store religiosity/spirituality – kneel on the knees and that area lights up, then we think there’s a god so we kneel again to get that feeling. The limbic is high emotion and why we raise our arms up in anger (to fight), to cry (to wipe tears), to laugh (to cover a wide open mouth). So tats on the shoulders would stimulate or inhibit limbic (I’m not smart enough to know) and who knows – stimulation might make us more inaccurate or less.

    One would have to interview the fellow with the old girlfriend embedded on his skin — perhaps he has fond memories and wishes her back and it stimulates an unrequited longing (ugh). Perhaps he believes in an eternal love and it brings him great peace (ahhh). Perhaps he was jilted and is angry and has given up on love altogether (double ugh). Only he knows. Comfort or anger? Is the limbic system calmed or churned up? Does churned up make him more or less coordinated?

  3. Tweets that mention Tattoos lose the ashes « NOI Notes -- Says:

    […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by painphysioscan, painphysioscan and Diane Jacobs, Noigroup. Noigroup said: NOI Notes on tattoos lose the cricket. Clinical reasoning and basic sciences. […]

  4. Amy Says:

    Joy, your comments are fascinating. The old comment “don’t let someone get under your skin” applies I think. Karen is right, there should be more research in this area.

  5. Amy Says:

    Apparently 30% of NBA players have tattoos. Would be interesting to analyze their performances, although many factors play in I’m sure.

  6. Judy Says:

    Is it possible that if one considers ones body a work of art one might avoid damaging the canvas – ones skin – by not participating in activities that could cause injury?
    Is it possible that the repeated puncturing of the skin by needles and the implanting of ink into the skin could permanently alter the sensations and therefore responses to stimulation?

  7. Ami Kalisek Says:

    This comment is strictly anecdotal and not at all based in science. I have done bodywork for over 25 years. I have been fascinated by tats and the whys and wheres for their placement. More often than not, significant tats are on an area of the body where there is pain. I always wondered and often asked, did the area hurt before that tat was done? Why did you choose the location? What is the significance of the picture and how much did it cost? How much did it hurt when it was done?
    I wish now I had written down all the answers. What David says, while cloaked in humor, rings true with what I have been told.
    Fascinating. Think Dennis Rodman of the Chicago Bulls some years back…

  8. Karen Says:

    Mechanisms underlying embodiment, disembodiment and loss of embodiment Melita J. Giummarraa,Stephen J. Gibsonb, Nellie Georgiou-Karistianisa, John L. Bradshawa Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews 32 (2008) 143–160

    “The body schema is a plastic and dynamic representation of the spatial and biomechanical properties of the body that is derived from multiple sensory inputs—particularly proprioceptive information from the muscles, joints and skin—that interact with motor systems (Kammers et al., 2006; Schwoebel and Coslett, 2005). The body schema comprises automatic motor and postural schemata upon which non-conscious movements are based, although these schemata can enter into and support intentional activity (Gallagher, 1986; Gallagher and Cole, 1995; Paillard, 1991).” “See also page 152 6.1. Tool embodiment”

    Don Bradman had an extraordinary embodiment and lived in an era when gentlemanly pursuits were appreciated. In this current era of fast cars, video games and pop culture pressure it is no wonder a left-handed fast bowler’s embodiment might falter occasionally. I am not convinced tattoos specifically contribute to

  9. Effectively embodied tattoos? | noijam Says:

    […] 2 years ago, I wrote a somewhat tongue in cheek article suggesting that one element of the performance decline of the Australian cricket team could be the […]

  10. Alan Muckle – Sport Injury & Performance Solutions Says:

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