Ailments and injuries are an inevitable part of being a martial artist. From sore muscles to broken bones, anything can happen in a sport with innumerable variables dictating the outcome. Sports science has improved immensely over the past few decades, which has helped athletes recover faster and learn more about mitigating the risk of injury through nutrition and proper technique.
Listed below are some of the most common types of injuries in martial arts that you should be aware of, along with guidelines that will provide you with a sense of how to reduce the risk of injuring yourself and what to do when you are faced with compromising ailments.
Consult a Physician Before Starting Martial Arts
It is always a prudent idea to consult your local physician before getting started with any exercise routine, especially one that requires as much physical activity as martial arts. It is important to have an understanding of your current fitness level and to ease into any routine until you are comfortable enough to turn it up a few notches.
If you already have an exercise routine and are wanting to switch things up, then you will have a much easier time adjusting than someone who is used to sitting on the couch all day. If you do happen to be a couch potato then it may take you a little while longer for your body to become acclimated to such rigorous activities, so try not to get discouraged. The physical and mental transformations that you will develop are definitely worth your time.
Throughout the years, I have heard many people – mostly those who already visit a fitness gym on a regular basis – give the excuse that they need to get in shape first before stepping into a martial arts gym, but the only way to properly get in shape for a particular sport is to actually train in that sport. A distance runner who can outlast Forrest Gump will quickly find themselves gasping for air after stepping into the ring or onto the mats because their bodies are not conditioned for the activity. The breathing cadences are much different and many times you have to continue breathing while flexing your entire core so you can brace for body shots.
A common theme among beginners is that, during sparring, they will either be a little reticent to land a punch on an experienced partner out of fear that their partner will lose their cool, or they will come out swinging as hard as they can because they feel like they have to prove how tough they are.
Always consult with your training partner about the level of intensity you want the sparring session to be to avoid these mistakes. Someone who is new to training and tries to knock their experienced partner’s head off will quickly find themselves with a headache, busted nose, or both. Hard sparring should be left to those with upcoming fights and a significant amount of experience.
Your body is a machine whose joints must remain adequately lubricated so it can continue functioning properly. The best way to ensure that happens is to stay hydrated. It is quite common for martial artists to bring several shirts with them during training sessions due to the amount of sweat they lose.
Electrolyte drinks or powders mixed with water taken directly after training will facilitate the rehydration process and help your body recover much easier.
You are what you eat. While that old saying is not meant to be taken literally, there is still a lot of truth to it. If you eat bad then you are going to feel bad. It really is that simple. Replenishing your body with the nutrients it needs to fully recover is one of the most important aspects of injury prevention, recovery, and physical growth. Make sure you maintain a diet that consists of plenty of amino acids, protein, vitamins A through D, and omega-3 fatty acids. Eat as naturally as possible and spend most of your time shopping away from sugary and processed foods that are usually located in the inside aisles of the grocery store.
Head injuries of all kinds are common in martial arts. Most of the time they are just minor cuts and bruises, but there are also times when concussions occur. Concussions are more likely to happen when the participant is not wearing proper equipment like headgear and a mouthpiece.
Headgear may be annoying to some, but it is strongly encouraged, especially for beginners. Applying Vaseline on your cheeks and forehead before sparring sessions will also significantly reduce the chances of any serious cuts.
While many martial artists think of their cauliflower ears as badges of honor, others may not feel the same. Cauliflower ear happens when the skin separates from the cartilage and fills up with fluid, eventually calcifying and hardening like a rock. The pain subsides once that occurs, but the entire healing process leading to calcification can be pretty painful. Because of this, many people try their best to prevent it by wearing wrestling headgear, which are small, smooth disks that cover the ears that still allow for normal wrestling and grappling. Once the tissues begin to separate, one way to treat it is by having a physician drain the affected area with a needle, although the odds are very high that it will just swell up again.
Ruptured eardrums are more common in boxing and Muay Thai due to the giant gloves hitting the ear flush and forcing air through. The odds of this happening decrease over time once you get used to moving your head and protecting yourself, but wearing boxing headgear is the most effective way to prevent that from happening.
The bones in your hands are some of the most fragile in your entire body, and broken hands are some of the most common injuries among competitors. If you are involved in a striking sport, then you will need to learn how to properly wrap your hands so you will have an extra layer of protection. There are also slip-on hand wraps with gel covering the knuckles that are popular with boxers and kickboxers.
Neck injuries are more common in grappling than striking, but having a strong neck will offer a layer of protection while you are on your feet as well. Your neck muscles will develop the longer you train in wrestling and jiu jitsu, but it is also a good idea to learn how to properly exercise and strengthen your neck by using a head harness with weights attached. Focusing on strengthening your neck will not only improve your grappling game, but it will also help your body better absorb punches while on your feet.
Stress fractures are tiny fractures in a bone that are caused by repeated trauma and most commonly occur in the tibia, or shin bones, and are common with endurance athletes like distance runners. The odds of developing stress fractures will increase once you begin kicking the heavy bag and participating in Muay Thai and kickboxing sparring sessions. Wearing shin guards will usually offer enough protection to prevent that from ever happening.
Groin and Hamstring Injuries
Groin injuries usually occur from improper stretching and wayward kicks between the legs. If you are used to only lifting your legs off the ground while walking or getting into bed, then you will want to slowly test your limits for how high you are able to kick.
Athletic cups offer a decent amount of protection against wayward groin kicks. Unfortunately, there is no solution that will prevent the pain from setting in, but wearing protection is a lot better than not wearing any at all.
Learn Proper Technique
Learning how to properly execute the basics will stop you from developing bad habits that could lead to immediate and long-term injuries. Learning how to keep your wrists straight while throwing punches will greatly reduce the risk of a severe wrist injury. It is also a common mistake for beginners to kick the heavy bag with their feet instead of with their shin bones, which can quickly lead to a broken foot.
If you are practicing takedowns using hip throws, using a thick, padded mat that is specifically designed for safe landings while being able to practice takedowns at full speed is ideal. But since those types of mats are not found in a lot of gyms and they are too thick to practice any type of sparring, learning the breakfall technique is the more practical method. Once you find yourself in the unfortunate position of being airborne from a takedown, you will then need to focus on making sure that either your hands or feet find the mat before your body does. Doing so will greatly reduce the impact of the takedown and increase your chances of continuing the round or class.
If you are getting involved in jiu jitsu, you will quickly learn how the body moves and, more importantly, how the body is not supposed to move. Once you begin practicing joint lock submissions, you will quickly realize how little pressure it takes to cause pain and hyperextension. Tap immediately once you start feeling a little pain and you will be fine, both in practice and in sparring. As they say in every jiu jitsu gym: tap early, tap often, and leave your ego at the door. The gym is for improving your own set of skills and having fun, not for proving to everyone how tough you are.
Once you begin sparring, there will oftentimes be other groups of people sharing the same mat space. Most people simply bump into each other during striking sessions, but grappling is a different story. There is a much greater risk of catching a stray heel or knee by another group, so always remain cognizant of what is going on around you.
Keep a First Aid Kit
All gyms should and likely do have some kind of first aid kit available in case of emergencies. Rubbing Vaseline on your face before sparring sessions will greatly reduce the risk of cuts, but they can still happen. It is unlikely that stitches will ever be needed from gym sparring, but bandages should always be kept in close range.
Hyperbaric Oxygen Therapy
Hyperbaric oxygen therapy has increased in popularity over the past decade and many athletes across multiple sports have started using them as part of their recovery routine, and I am one of them. There are several different ways in which they are built, but they all serve the same function of forcing oxygen into your body to increase recovery time. My coach had one that was shaped like a tube that sat on the floor with a valve to let in oxygen and a separate one to let it out. Once inside, I held the small, detachable door against the entrance until the oxygen pumping inside sealed it shut. I then hung out for an hour while it continued to flow inward, and after an hour I slowly turned the release valve and let the pressure out. I then went home, slept like a baby, and felt phenomenal the next day.
Listen to Your Body
Overtraining can be an issue with competitors and those who are continually striving to make improvements in their game. If you are tired and your muscles are sore, that is your body telling you that you need rest. If your joints hurt, that is your body telling you to avoid any activity that could further exacerbate the problem.
Bruises, Strains, and Sprains
Bruises and sprains are an inevitable part of martial arts. While most are minor and will not inhibit your training regime, there are times when they will be more severe and in need of attention. If you are unsure what to do if you encounter a bad sprain, try using the POLICE method for recovery.
Apply heavy pressure to the swollen, injured area with an elastic wrap bandage or something similar. Apply as much pressure as you can, even squeezing it with your hands if possible or necessary.
If the joint is not broken, try testing its current limit by moving it around very slowly in order to activate the injured area as much and as soon as possible, bringing it to the brink of a sharp pain.
Applying ice or gel packs to the affected area every couple of hours for about 20-30 minutes per day will eventually reduce the swelling and inflammation. Make sure to not apply it directly to the skin as it will cause burns and irritation; instead, use cloth or a towel thick enough to where you can still feel the cold but not damage the skin.
In between ice therapy sessions, you should continue applying pressure with a compression sleeve or elastic wrapping bandage. Compression clothes are not the same thing as a sleeve designed for an elbow, knee, or ankle, and many times even those will not provide the adequate pressure needed that an elastic bandage can. If you choose to use an elastic bandage, start by wrapping the limb several inches away from the affected area and work your way upward toward your heart, overlapping the bandage by about 50 percent each time. Make sure that it is tight enough to firmly compress the swelling but not too tight to where your limb turns purple.
Once you have applied the compression bandage, try and keep the injured limb as elevated as possible, ideally above your heart. If you have a sprained elbow, try propping something up next to you so you can rest it on that. If you have a sprained knee, you have an excuse to lie in bed all day with your leg propped up.
Sport-Specific Exercises and Stretching
One of the best ways to prevent injuries and prepare your body for your respective martial art is with proper warm-up and cool-down routines like sport-specific exercises and active and passive stretching.
Sport-specific exercises prepare the right muscles for the stressors they will endure during the specific martial arts class. Instead of basic calisthenics to increase your heart rate, pummeling drills will have the same effect, and you are also improving your technique in the process.
Active stretching is when you perform basic stretches for approximately thirty seconds without any external forces that add pressure. When you are stretching your hamstrings by bending down to touch your toes, you are engaging in active stretching, or when you stretch your shoulder by pressing your arm against your chest.
The best times to engage in active stretching are when you wake up and before going to bed. After waking up, your body is stiff and your muscles are cold. Active stretching helps activate the blood flow and loosens the body for normal daily activities. Stretching before bedtime will help alleviate any existing muscle tension left over from the day and can also help you get better quality sleep.
Passive stretching is when you have assistance from an external force, such as with a partner or a towel. Engaging in passive stretching will help increase your flexibility over time and reduce the risk of injury and lactic acid buildup after a workout. An example of passive stretching is when you lie on your side with your outside knee extended out in a running position while you twist your torso and face in the opposite direction. Your partner then applies pressure to both your leg and shoulder, creating more force than you could apply on your own.
Preventing Overuse Injury
Overuse injuries occur when repetitive stressors begin to adversely affect the muscles or joints instead of promoting growth and recovery. This is more common with people who are not used to much, if any, physical activity and they then decide to start training as if they had been doing so the whole time, but it also often occurs with those who become obsessed with training for one reason or another.
A great way to mitigate the risk of injury through the overuse of training is by engaging in practice variability. Practice variability is a type of training that helps you build skills from what is called “blocked practice” and apply them in “random practice.” Blocked practice is when you focus on developing a set of skills by narrowly focusing on one or a few exercises, such as only hitting the heavy bag every day. Doing so will increase your punching power, but once you begin sparring then you will find it difficult to control your breathing and maintain proper footwork. If you only focus on footwork drills, you will not be able to practice your punching combinations.
Random practice is when you are subjected to many different variables that you will likely encounter in real-life situations. A sparring session is a prime example of random practice because each person will provide you with different movements and combinations that you cannot prepare for in drilling. Instead of hitting the heavy bag five times per week, reduce the number of times to 2-3 per week and incorporate sparring for another 2-3 days. Not only will this allow your hands and elbow joints time to recover, but it will also allow you to properly react and adjust accordingly when faced with different fighting styles.
Injuries are inevitable in martial arts, but there are steps you can take to reduce the risk and ensure a safer training experience. Consult with a physician before starting martial arts.
Sparring intensity should be discussed with training partners to avoid unnecessary injuries. Boxing is effective in preventing ruptured eardrums. Proper hand wrapping techniques and using shin guards can reduce the risk of hand and shin injuries. Strengthening the neck muscles can offer protection against neck injuries. Shin guards and athletic cups provide some level of protection for stress fractures and groin injuries, respectively.
Learning and practicing proper technique is crucial for injury prevention. Developing good habits and avoiding bad ones can significantly reduce the risk of immediate and long-term injuries. Maintaining awareness of your surroundings during sparring sessions can help prevent accidents with other groups sharing the same training area. Keeping a first aid kit accessible is essential in case of any minor injuries that may occur during training.
Hyperbaric oxygen therapy can aid in the recovery process, and listening to your body’s signals and avoiding overtraining is important to prevent injuries. The POLICE method can be used for the initial treatment of sprains, and sport-specific exercises, active and passive stretching, and practice variability can help prevent overuse injuries.
Following these guidelines and taking necessary precautions minimizes the risk of injuries and creates a safer training environment for themselves and their training partners.