Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) has seen a rapid growth in popularity over the last decade. The Martial Arts encompass several different styles, techniques and philosophies of self-defense and combat such as Karate, Judo, Jujitsu and Kickboxing. Participants of all ages benefit from the practice of discipline, physical engagement, and self-defense. However, like many other sports, sports injuries in martial arts are common. The prevalence of head injuries are only enhanced when you examine MMA, a full contact combat sport that allows for a wide variety of fighting techniques to be used in competition. In MMA, roughly 31% of professional matches end as a result of head trauma (knock-out or technical knock-out).
On Saturday in Copenhagen, Vancouver’s own “Bazooka Joe” called the #GLORY29 kickboxing fight that he would have headlined. He was sidelined from competition last year after he noticed increasing sensitivity to light and noise and was diagnosed with post-concussive syndrome. He was forced to withdraw his name from competition and focus on other activities including opening his own gym and play-by-play announcing.
The GLORY event comes just days after the tragic death of 28-year old MMA fighter, João Carvalho. João suffered a traumatic brain injury directly linked to the technical knockout he received at the Total Extreme Fighting event in Dublin. While he did not lose consciousness during the fight, his symptoms appeared shortly afterward and rapidly increased. Despite emergency brain surgery, he succumbed to his injuries and now people are questioning the rules and regulations of MMA.
Sports with repetitive blows to the head, like boxing and MMA, have direct links with brain injuries and neurological abnormalities with symptoms that include motor, cognitive or behavioural impairments. Knock-outs and Technical Knock-outs are dangerous, without question. Researchers now believe there is a risk with sub-concussive hits (hits to the head that don’t result in concussion) which they believe might be priming the brain and making it vulnerable to a concussion. Preliminary evidence is showing that sub-concussive injuries might have cumulative effects that change the brain. There seems to be a link with cumulative hits and likelihood to develop a pituitary dysfunction (hypopituitarism), microstructural brain damage, and even Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) which presents itself with symptoms similar to dementia and can only be ID’d during an autopsy.
With so many hits to the head, athletes practicing any martial arts need to be aware and educated about the risk of brain injuries in their sport. Physicians and athletic trainers should be present at all athletic exposures, and ringside tests should be performed on competitors before, during, and after a match. While there is still a culture of resistance among athletes to report concussive symptoms, sports organizations should look for opportunities to protect athletes from unnecessary permanent injury, whether through rule changes or stringent policies around return-to-sport.