How to prevent injuries in martial arts

Martial arts involves the learning and application of fighting techniques.  It should therefore be no surprise that there is a risk of injury associated with practicing a martial art.  In this article, I look at the most common injuries that practitioners experience, as well as look at the relative risk of injury between martial arts.  

Useful practices to help prevent injuries in martial arts are as follows: warm up properly, teach beginners control, monitor sparring closely, create a culture of safe practice, and take personal responsibility the safety of both yourself and others.

Before I elaborate on these areas in more detail, I want to talk more generally about injuries in the martial arts.

Martial arts injury statistics

A number of scientific studies have been completed that have looked at injury rates within martial arts.

The authors John-David Swanson, Jacquelynn Morrissey and  Adam Barragan completed a meta analysis of some of these studies and came up with some interesting statistics.

In reviewing studies that had looked at the injury rates of karateka (those that practise karate) who competed in high level tournaments, they found that there was  approximating a one in five chance of sustaining an injury during a tournament match. For the people competing at this level there was also almost a one in four chance of receiving an injury during training .

These stats seem quite high but these are individuals training and competing at the top of their game.  For the average individual practicing Karate, the injury rates are likely to be lower.

Common karate injuries

The above meta analysis also looked at the types of injuries that these individuals sustained.

 

Type of Injury Percentage
Common Bump and Bruise 46.9%
Bleeding Nose 19.9%
Lacerations of Cuts 14.4%
Sprains and Strains 3.35%
Concussion 2%

 

So whilst the chances of being injured when participating or training for a karate tournament seems quite high, the actual injuries sustained are fairly minor in nature (apart those who suffered from concussions which is a serious injury).

Areas of body at risk

De Sousa et al. (2011) also recorded the location of the injuries listed above:

 

Area of body Percentage
Hands and Fingers 15.5%
Feet and Toes 12.8%
Leg 9.5%
Mouth and Teeth 8.8%
Nose 6.8%
Knee 6.8%
Skull 6.1%

 

Whilst the data is from those karateka competing and training for tournaments, it’s likely it does fairly represent the areas of the body that are at risk for the average Karate practitioner.

What is the most dangerous martial art

Okay so there’s a risk of injury for those that practice Karate but how does it compare to other martial arts.

The meta analysis also explored this same question and came up with the following results.

 

Martial Art Percentage Injuries Reported
Jujitsu 97.5%
Aikido 51%
Kung Fu 38%
Karate 23.5%
Tae Kwon Do 22%
Judo 19.5%
Tai Chi 14%

 

As this data shows, the most injury prone martial art is Jujitsu, with the least being Tai Chi.

It’s quite surprising that Judo has a relatively low risk of injury.  It involves both throwing and grappling techniques. To the casual observer, it looks quite violent in nature.  However, as the authors point out, its comparative safety may be due to the rules and regulations that govern the sport which may greatly enhance the safety aspect.

The martial art with least injuries

It’s perhaps unsurprising that Tai Chi is ranked as the safest martial art in the above analysis.   Its techniques are performed in slow motion, it doesn’t involve contact sparring and there are few strenuous movements involved.

If you’re for further guidance on what martial arts to study, see my article here.

Difference in injuries between grappling and striking arts

One study looked at the difference in injuries between striking arts and those that were more focused on grappling techniques.

Unsurprisingly, there is a significant difference between the two.

In the study, Karate was selected as a ‘typical’ strking art.  Practitioners of this art, suffered the most injuries in the hand/fingers, their legs and feet and toes.  This is illustrated in the following diagram contained in the study itself.

In contrast, in grappling arts such as Juijitsu, the majority of injuries were sustained in the shoulder, knee and ear.  Again this is illustrated in the following diagram from the study itself. The injuries sustained are primarily bruises (56%), sprains (12%) and abrasions (8%).

 

How do martial arts compare to other sports

The meta analysis also compares how martial arts compares to other sports.  The table below summarises their findings.

 

Sport Injury Rate
American Football 35.9%
Shotokan Karate 23.6%
Soccer 13.25%
Ice Hockey 11.95%
Basketball 8.8%
Volleyball 6.0%
Baseball 5.8%

 

A study by Kujala et al. (1995)showed that the injury rate were very similar across Soccer (25.4%), Ice Hockey (26%), Volleyball (21.5%), Judo (21.3%), and Karate (24.7%).  

There are, of course, safer sports to practice than martial arts but equally there are more dangerous sporting activities that you can engage in.  It’s also important to remember that, as I’ve outlined, the safety level varies depending on what martial art you study.

How to prevent injuries in martial arts

In this section, I’ll outline some suggestions in relation to martial arts injury prevention.  

Not only should care be taken in choosing which martial art to practice (see my article here for help choosing), but once selected you need to ensure you select the right school.  One of the key considerations is the teacher or Sensei themselves.

It’s worth observing a lesson or training session before joining a particular club to ensure the following takes place:

Proper Warm Up

Minor strains and sprains can be avoided by ensuring the class undertakes an adequate warm up.  These will typically start with light aerobic exercises, such as jogging laps around the dojo, to get the muscles warmed up and heart rate elevated.  

Following this, a stretching session typically  takes place whereby the practitioners adopt various positions, such as the splits, to lengthen the major muscles of the body.  Once extended to their full length the position is held momentarily. Overtime, those incorporating this element develop amazing flexibility.

The warm up usually ends with very light drills.  In the striking arts, this might involve punching and kicking combinations.  In the grappling arts, this might involve partnering up and working through the beginning of a throw to the stage where the opponent is off balanced without actually being thrown.  The emphasis at this stage is on lightness and it’s designed to awake both body and mind to the training that is to come.

Proper warm ups help warm up the body’s muscles and joints so that it is prepared for the physical demands that are about to be placed on it.  There is no intention to exhaust the body or to work to muscular failure; it is carried out in a light, gentle fashion.

The process is akin to the way you treat your car on a cold winter’s morning:  you don’t immediately start the engine and slam your foot to the accelerator. If you do treat your car in this way, it won’t be long before you’re taking a trip to the garage.  Instead, you gently ease your car away, allowing the engine to warm up and the oil to flow before you make any heavy demands of it.

Beginners taught control

It’s also worth checking how well the beginners are supervised.  

Unfortunately,  something I’ve noticed is that many injuries are inflicted by beginners.  Those new to martial arts are not aware of timing , spacing or technique.  They are also inexperienced with dealing with their emotions in a sparring situation.

This can be especially the case in the grappling arts.  Take for example, the beginner in BJJ who is rolling with a partner.  It’s very easy for this individual, particularly if they’re young, to become hot headed or overly concerned about winning.  They’ll put on an arm bar quickly and suddenly, perhaps not even realising their own strength. Indeed, it’s more likely that they’ll rely on brute strength and not skill, to implement a technique.

Without supervision, beginners are dangerous.  It needs someone to show them correct technique, but also to monitor them closely so that they can quickly intervene to stop improper practice and provide correction.

It’s for this reason that more experienced practitioners should also be wary of sparring with beginners.   I’d recommend that beginners are told “Let’s go easy” or “Let’s have a light session” before the session is initiated so that there can be no doubt about the intention of the more experienced practitioner.  Of course, those beginners who ignore this and still try to ‘muscle’ their way to victory are usually taught a short, sharp lesson and soon get the point.

Sparring closely monitored

Many injuries are caused during sparring sessions.  This is unsurprising: two combatants are trying their best to apply techniques in order to subdue their opponent.  In a sense, it’s a realm of chaos: it’s unplanned, unscripted and highly reactive. It’s easy for limbs to clash unexpectedly, for tempers to become frayed and for techniques to be poorly implemented.

It’s for these reasons that sparring sessions need to be closely supervised by an experienced practitioner and one with the confidence to intervene when required.  They need to be able to stop the session when excessive aggression is used, poor technique is being applied or risk of injury looks imminent.

Emphasis on safe practice

There needs to be a culture of safety within the dojo.  Fighters should be instructed to ‘train lightly’ or ‘go gentle’ during practice sessions.

The specific dangers of certain techniques should be pointed out.  For instance, when using kicking techniques the position of the knee and foot in the standing leg is crucial: improper alignment can lead to serious injuries involving muscle and tendon strains and tears.  The instructor must firstly, be aware of these dangers, highlight them to the group and actively intervene and provide correction when improper technique is performed by his students.

Personal Responsibility

Finally, it’s the role of every practitioner to ensure they train in a safe and controlled manner.  Self control is after all the cornerstone of martial arts.

It’s up to all of us to ensure we don’t succumb to aggression when sparring, our techniques are controlled, we point out poor technique in our junior club members and we help a culture of safe martial practice.

 

Cover image from YouTube

 

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