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Martial arts are an incredible way to get in the best shape of your life and to learn how to defend yourself in the process. However, the combat part of martial arts means there will usually be injury from time to time, as in any other contact sport. So, in which martial art do the most injuries happen?
If we consider MMA as a form of martial arts, then it’s by far the most probable to lead to injuries. MMA’s nature combines all other martial arts and squares them off in a much more liberal ruleset. If we’re comparing martial arts individually, though, the answer isn’t that definitive.
Different studies found different results, depending on the method they used to determine injury frequency. Some measured the athlete injury per minute ratio, others measured the severity of injuries, and some highlighted the type of injury. What they all concluded, however, is that the difference in injury frequency between full-contact and semi-contact martial arts is surprisingly small.
Which martial art has the most injuries?
MMA (mixed martial arts) is a combat sport with the most injury occurrences, even when looking at it from different perspectives. Severe injuries happen the most often, in-combat injuries happen more than in any other combat sport, and most practitioners suffer some injury when training MMA. There are a lot of reasons for this being the case.
First, MMA combines all the different martial arts and styles within those martial arts to create a hybrid striking-grappling sport with the most deadly fighters in the world. The combination requires a less strict ruleset than those of traditional martial arts.
The fighters can use knees, elbows, ground-and-pound, locks, and throws – and all while wearing thin gloves that barely cushion any impact. Virtually anything apart from groin shots and eye pokes is allowed, so it’s easy to see how that can lead to a higher frequency of injury.
The gloves tend to be a problem, too. MMA gloves are, as we said, thinner and lighter than most martial arts gloves. But, they are also almost always finger-less. Therefore, it’s not uncommon for fighters to get unintentionally poked in the eye severely in combat. Former UFC champion Michael Bisping suffered severe consequences from one such poke that ultimately ended his career.
Furthermore, striking arts like Kickboxing, Boxing, Karate, and Taekwondo all have similar injuries. The most common injuries are a consequence of impact: lacerations, stress fractures, bruising, and contusions. Concussions are much more frequent here.
Likewise, grappling martial arts like Judo, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, or Wrestling tend to lean on a different injury type. Of course, the reason for the difference is the techniques used. Grapplers use many locks, holds, throw-downs pushes and pulls to defeat the opponent. That won’t cause impact injuries that often but will cause sprains, strains, dislocations, and occasionally, ligament tears and fractures.
Once you know how striking and grappling techniques tend to cause different types of injuries, you can see why combining the styles can cause the injury frequency to go up. It’s essential to take all the precautionary measures possible to prevent the injuries from happening.
The most dangerous martial arts individually
If we disregard MMA and look at all the martial arts individually, it’s hard to determine which one has the most injuries. The data can vary depending on how it was gathered, so the results often portray a picture that isn’t a true reflection of the real situation. That being said, some martial arts conclusively have more injury occurrences than others.
Among striking martial arts, surprisingly, Taekwondo seems to have the highest injury rates. It is not conclusive, though, because the severity of the injury isn’t considered here. For instance, Muay Thai or Kickboxing will usually cause more severe injuries than other striking combat sports because the techniques used are the most forceful. Concussions and stress fractures happen frequently.
But, if you look at the frequency of injury alone, disregarding the severity, Taekwondo beats Kickboxing, Muay Thai, Karate, and all other martial arts. It might come as a surprise because Taekwondo utilizes semi-contact point fighting rules, not full-contact.
But, it’s also the most acrobatic among martial arts, which is often the reason why injuries occur. People tend to try and go over their limitations, which can lead to injuries quite often. Hamstring injuries are the most common in Taekwondo due to a large frequency of high kick deliveries.
As for the grappling martial arts, the situation isn’t conclusive as well. BJJ and Judo cause different injuries, but they happen just a bit more often in Judo. The throws are much more decisive, and the rules make injury occurrences a bit more often.
However, Wrestling leads to injuries more often than both of them – the training is the most brutal, and the fight is the most physical. Most wrestlers suffer from the “cauliflower ear” resulting from grinding, chafing, and crushing ears in battle.
Most common injuries in martial arts
Striking and grappling, as we now know, lead to different types of injuries. But, when considering each injury in all martial arts, some happen more often than others.
Stress fractures are probably the most common injury in martial arts (apart from bruises and lacerations). Stress fracture means that a bone breaks as a result of repetitive impact. It can happen when hitting your opponent with poor technique, when colliding with shins, or hitting a stray knee/elbow.
It can also happen after repeated heavy bag strikes in practice if you didn’t have adequate wrist support. Similarly, overdoing it on a treadmill can cause minor stress fractures in your feet, so you should be careful of that too.
Bruises and lacerations are also very often, especially in MMA, where there’s less protective equipment. Also, they happen a lot more in martial arts that allow elbow and knee strikes, such as Muay Thai and MMA.
In semi-contact sports such as Karate and Taekwondo, sprains ligament tears are more often than impact-caused injuries. Because of the high speed and technique difficulty, practitioners tend to get hamstring strains and groin at a high rate, especially when attempting techniques they have not yet mastered. Groin injuries don’t necessarily have to come from getting stuck in that region – straining a groin muscle is even more often than groin strikes.
In grappling martial arts, nothing comes more often than ear injuries. The ears are the most sensitive part of your head, almost always under pressure when grappling. Chafes, scrapes, strains, and dislocations can happen all over the body, but ears suffer the worst by far.
We already mentioned the cauliflower ear, which is not an injury per se, but a disfiguration that comes from your hours in the gym doing grappling. Your ear gets swollen because of all the squashing and pulling, so it is tough to avoid it without using proper protective gear. Boxers and Kickboxers have this problem too, but not as often as Wrestlers and other grapples.
There’s a lot you can do to prevent injury, though, but you should be aware that practicing martial arts carries the risk of injury as well.
How to prevent injuries in martial arts?
When it comes to protecting yourself and preventing injuries in martial arts, there are two main things you need to keep in mind: proper equipment and proper technique. Protective gear can do absolute wonders and is the most crucial in preventing martial arts injuries, be it in striking or grappling.
Starting from the top of your body going down, headgear is always an incredible choice to prevent numerous types of injury. It’s a padded helmet designed to distribute the force behind strikes to the head, protecting you from bruises, lacerations, and facial fractures.
When grappling, a headgear is almost obligational because it prevents any head injury when grappling, including cauliflower ears, nose breaks, etc. When striking, it can help prevent concussions when getting a significant blow to the head.
Next, you should wear a mouthguard at all times, both in sparring and competition. Not only does it protect your teeth, but it prevents other mouth injuries as well, including lacerations, tongue bites, etc. They’re also designed to distribute the force of impact, which prevents jaw dislocations and breaks as well.
Wearing hand wraps (bandages) under your gloves is crucial when doing any striking, be it against an opponent or doing bag work. They’ll keep your wrists in place and reduce the risk of stress fractures.
A lot of practitioners use groin guards as well. Although groin shots are strictly prohibited in virtually all martial arts, they do happen unintentionally but regularly. So, it’s always better safe than sorry because a hard blow to the groin can have serious consequences.
Finally, it would help if you considered wearing shin guards in training, both for striking to prevent forceful blows and for grappling, to avoid scrapes and pressure tears.
Always warm-up and stretch extensively before practice. It is crucial to do so because if your body isn’t ready for more-than-usual exertion, the risk of injury skyrockets. And, last, always make sure that your equipment is functional before use. Faulty equipment can lead to misfortune situations that can be avoided by being more alert.