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Martial Arts Injuries: Causes, Treatment & Prevention

Participation in combat sports and martial arts is on the rise. People of all ages, and all conditioning levels are raising their fitness levels along with fighters. As with any sport, there are risks for injury. In Martial Arts, there are injuries that are seen more frequently. Following is a list of common injuries, some treatment recommendations for each, and ideas to avoid injury in the first place.
Neck, Spine, and Jaw Injuries
Sprains and strains are common in more contact type martial arts. Simple strains and sprains left unaddressed may lead to headache problems as well as chronic neck or spine issues. It’s recommended to use ice or cold packs for relief in the first 72 hrs and to stay as active as you can. Bed rest is no longer recommended for spine problems, in fact the opposite is true. The sooner back and neck issues are treated with hands-on manual therapy and exercise, the better the chance of a full recovery. Seek treatment from a Physical Therapist that specializes in treatment of the spine.
Knee and Leg Injuries
Kicking is a staple in martial arts, and grappling requires being in positions on the mat that put strain on the knees. With these repetitive activities, there is a chance for Tendonitis (an inflammation of the tendon that connects muscle to bone), and for sprains of the ligaments of the knee (tissues that hold bones together in the joint). Simple muscle pulls are common and should resolve in a few days with rest from the aggravating activity. Tendonitis and sprains may present longer term problems and medical attention for these injuries is important. In the initial stages of injury, ice or a cold pack should be used for the first 72 hrs. Visit a Physical Therapist to screen the injury and give you exercises to get you back on track. With some injuries to the knee, swelling can develop inside the joint, which acts to “short-circuit” or “turn off” the big Quadriceps muscles in the front of the thigh. In this situation, even simple walking may be very painful and the knee can “buckle” or give way. So, it’s important to seek expert advice–don’t just rely on exercises from the internet that might not be appropriate for the specific injury.
Hand and Arm Injuries
Punching and grappling can cause injury to the hand and upper extremity. The small joints of the fingers can be injured with repeated punching and with improper technique. These injuries are generally traumatic in nature and occur with one punch or with taking a kick to the hand. Small fractures or breaks in the bone can be present. Hand injuries should be taken seriously and may require x-rays to rule out significant damage. Injuries to the small joints of the hand can take a long time to recover. Joints in the knuckles can be swollen and stiff for several months after an injury has healed.
Head injuries, or concussions can happen with a hard blow to the head, or from hitting the head hard on the mat. Symptoms include nausea, dizziness, and headache. Concussions may affect memory and concentration, and the athlete may feel as if he or she is “in a fog”. Concussions are “functional” injuries to the brain and will not show up in an MRI or CT Scan. With any head injury, it is important to be screened by a medical professional. Mild concussions may resolve in as little as 7 days, but it is recommended to have a graded return to activity. No one should return to full activity until cleared by the medical team.
Bumps, Cuts, and Bruises
As with any contact sport, cuts, bumps, and bruises are just a part of the game. Knowing what to do about it is an important part of participating in the sport. A general rule for cuts is anything into the border of the lip or in the eyelid needs immediate attention and stitches. Cuts other places that are more than an inch long, or the sides of the skin don’t hold together may also need stitches. When in doubt- get it checked out.
Ankle Sprains
An ankle sprain or injury to the ligaments of the ankle seems like a small injury. The problem is, if left untreated, athletes that sustain one ankle sprain are more likely to have another in the future. Getting treatment aimed at increasing motion, decreasing swelling, improving strength and balance are important to prevent re-injury. Wearing a brace is also helpful in preventing the recurrence of ankle sprains.
Strength, Flexibility, and Conditioning for Martial Arts- Injury Prevention
Flexibility and the ability to move through functional movement patterns like squatting, kneeling, standing on one leg, and others is an important baseline for any sport. If movement patterns are restricted by tight muscles or joints, there is a higher risk of injury. A base of strength and stability of the “core” is also important for injury prevention. Prior to beginning any sport, seek the advice of a Sports Physical Therapist to make sure movement patterns and joint function are adequate for the demands of the sport. If there are limitations, exercises and some hands-on treatment can be useful in getting the body ready for the specific sport. An ounce of prevention is worth weeks or even months of rehabilitation.

WAR is the Warrior Athlete Rehabilitation Program at Bodycentral Physical Therapy & The Ultimate Sports Asylum. This program addresses combat sports injuries, and focuses on returning the fighting athlete back to competition with the flexibility, strength, and stability needed for this demanding sport. For more information visit Call (520)325-4002 to schedule your appointment.