Copyright 2013 American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons
Martial Arts Injury Prevention

According to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), there were more than 35,000 visits to hospital emergency rooms for injuries related to martial arts in 2011. There are many different styles of martial arts. This statistic may include injuries to athletes practicing judo, jujitsu, karate, kickboxing, kung fu, nunchuka, pugil sticks, and savate.

Common Martial Arts Injuries

Mixed martial arts, traditional martial arts, and self-defense practices differ in techniques, regulations, equipment, and intensity. As a result, martial arts participation causes a wide range of injuries that can vary from mild to severe.

According to 2011 data, the most common martial arts injuries are sprains, strains, cuts, and bruises. Broken bones are also common.

These injuries frequently affect the knee, ankle, shoulder and elbow. Hands are particularly vulnerable to injury during striking martial arts.

Striking martial arts also result in more injuries to the head, face, nose and mouth. Concussions also occur. Some types of martial arts incorporate moves and holds that may result in neck injuries.

Several strategies can help to prevent martial arts injuries, such as using proper protective equipment, and having thorough training and supervision in new techniques.

Proper Preparation
  • Physical examination. It is important to see your doctor before participating in any sport. A patient history and physical exam are necessary in almost all high school and college sports; however, community sports and martial arts tend not to require such documentation. Cardiovascular, neurologic, and musculoskeletal problems should be thoroughly evaluated by a healthcare professional, such as a primary care doctor, before any training is begun.
  • Maintain fitness. Be sure you are in good physical condition when you begin martial arts training. Fatigue during training and competition often leads to poor technique and injury. Do not do an activity if you are too tired to do it safely.
  • If you are out of shape at the start of your training, gradually increase your activity level and slowly build up to a higher fitness level. It is essential to build your strength and endurance before attempting complex martial arts techniques. Running, jumping rope, biking, and swimming are good cardiovascular activities to help improve your fitness level. Anaerobic exercise, such as strength training and plyometrics will also improve performance.

  • Warm up. Always take time to warm up. Research studies show that cold muscles are more prone to injury. Warm up with jumping jacks, or running or walking in place for 3 to 5 minutes.
  • Cool down and stretch. Stretching at the end of exercise is too often neglected because of busy schedules. Stretching can help reduce muscle soreness and keep muscles long and flexible. Be sure to stretch after each training practice to reduce your risk for injury.
  • Hydrate. Even mild levels of dehydration can hurt athletic performance. If you have not had enough fluids, your body will not be able to effectively cool itself through sweat and evaporation.
Ensure Appropriate Equipment
  • Headgear is essential when sparring.
  • Cups and protective waist belts add protection to the groin area.
  • Use a mouthguard to protect your teeth, mouth, and tongue.
  • If you wear glasses, use safety glasses or glass guards to protect your eyes.
  • Wrap your hands with the appropriate sized wraps and with proper technique. Properly wrapped hands will feel secure.
  • Proper footwear is important. On matted floors, avoid socks or footwear that may cause you to slip. In many cases, going barefoot provides the most stability. Talk to your coach or supervisor about what type of footwear would be best for your activity and skill level.
Focus on Technique
  • Spotting (watching and monitoring) is essential. A coach or supervisor should spot participants during all sessions, especially when complex or challenging moves are being performed.
  • Protecting oneself during a fall should be one of the first techniques learned and perfected. Being thrown by an opponent at high speed, or falling onto one's neck or head, can result in serious injury.
  • New techniques should be practiced at half speed. It is also helpful to talk to your coach or supervisor before attempting a new move to ensure you understand how to safely execute it.
  • Understand the dangers of performing submission holds incorrectly.
    • Know how much force may inflict injury.
    • Know your opponent's level of experience. Newer participants may not understand when they are in danger of injury.
    • When being held, recognize when you should tap out for your own safety.
    • Understand what part of your body is in danger with each particular move.
      • Arm Bar - elbow, forearm, shoulder
      • Triangle choke - throat, neck
      • Americana - shoulder, elbow
      • Kimura - shoulder, elbow
      • Heel hook (one of the most dangerous moves) - knee, ankle, foot
      • Guillotine - neck and throat
  • In competitive martial arts in which weight classes are used, cutting weight may be a standard practice. If you are considering cutting weight, check with your doctor or a trained dietician to determine a healthy way to safely lose weight.
Ensure a Safe Environment
  • Practice in a well-padded area.
  • Be aware of your surroundings while other participants are practicing to avoid collisions.
Prepare for Injuries
  • Coaches, trainers, and other staff should be knowledgeable about first aid and be able to administer it for minor injuries, such as facial cuts, bruises, or minor strains and sprains.
  • Be prepared for emergencies. All coaches, trainers, and other staff should have a plan to reach medical personnel for help with more significant injuries such as concussions, dislocations, contusions, sprains, abrasions, and fractures.
Safe Return to Play

An injured player's symptoms must be completely gone before returning to play. For example:

  • In case of a joint problem, the participant must have no pain, no swelling, full range of motion, and normal strength.
  • In case of concussion, the participant must have no symptoms at rest or with exercise, and should be cleared by a qualified medical professional.
Prevent Overuse Injuries

Because many athletes are focusing on just one sport and are training year-round, doctors are seeing an increase in overuse injuries. The American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons has partnered with STOP Sports Injuries to help educate parents, coaches, and athletes about how to prevent overuse injuries. Do not allow yourself or your child to play one sport year round — taking regular breaks and playing other sports is essential to skill development and injury prevention.

Source: Department of Research & Scientific Affiar, American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons. Rosemont, IL: AAOS; June 2013. Based on data from the Nationwide Electronic Injury Surveillance System (NEISS), 2011; U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission.

Last reviewed: September 2013
AAOS does not endorse any treatments, procedures, products, or physicians referenced herein. This information is provided as an educational service and is not intended to serve as medical advice. Anyone seeking specific orthopaedic advice or assistance should consult his or her orthopaedic surgeon, or locate one in your area through the AAOS "Find an Orthopaedist" program on this website.
Copyright 2013 American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons
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