As you train you will be interested in doing your movements and skills with increasing speed, intensity, and power. However, the methods you utilize to achieve these goals can sometimes lead to long-term injuries. These are injuries that slowly develop over time and that you may not be aware of for several years. Unfortunately, they may eventually become chronic and very evident.
Some of the most common of these injuries result from over-extension of joints. Small hyper-extensions of joints over a long period of time can cause lasting painful injuries. These can occur when small micro-tears occur in tissues at a rate that cannot be repaired by the body quickly enough. If you continue the same behavior constantly then the condition worsens over time. Punching often results in these types of injuries to the elbow and shoulder joints, and less frequently to the wrist (although contact drills will affect the wrist more dramatically).
When the arm is extended forward in a punch the laws of physics cannot be escaped. As the arm arrives at its maximum point of extension, inertia takes over. The mass of the fist and forearm can continue pulling the arm forward, possibly causing a minor hyper-extension at the elbow and possibly the shoulder. If repeated continually (not uncommon in marital arts training), then ongoing damage and long-term injuries may result.
You must be aware that these types of injuries can occur to the knees, hips, ankles, hands, feet, elbows, neck, shoulders, and any other joint involved in repetitive motion. In our training we stress that joints should never be extended forward to the point where these types of hyper-extension can occur. This is one reason why we say all joints, especially those in the arms and legs, should maintain a slight flexing at all times. When punching, the arms should maintain a slight curvature so that the elbow never goes straight, thereby reducing the chance for these types of injuries to the elbow joint.
Punching causes another characteristic problem at the shoulder joint. Extending the punch so that the shoulder is moved forward of local octagon angle three or four can cause hyper-extension injuries in the shoulder joint. This is one of several reasons why we advocate only punching within your center triangle. Punches that remain in the center triangle naturally have the arm curvature that limits elbow injuries, prevent the shoulders from moving forward, and offer additional power and speed to these strikes.
Similar concerns involve kicking. Hyper-extension at the knee can cause long-term injuries and should be avoided whenever possible. Mae Geri, Yoko Geri, and any kick involving a thrust type motion are likely to cause hyper-extensions over time if you do not consciously work to limit the amount that the knee, and to a lesser extent, the hip is forced to hyper-extend.
Also be aware of other long-term injury risks. If you are experiencing bouts of tendonitis (a swelling of one or more tendons that connect muscles to bones) then you should examine associated movements to see how they can be modified to avoid these types of injuries. If you have these problems then you need to pay attention to what your body is telling you. Something is not correct in your technique, or you are performing a movement too often or with unnecessary power.
Small hairline fractures can occur in bones that are subject to repetitive or even momentary impact. We stress that it is important to avoid bone-on-bone contact to help prevent these types of injuries, but any impact runs the risk of small, even microscopic fractures to bones or damage to connective tissues. If you develop pains in a limb they could be the result of this type of injury. Find a different method for blocking, striking, or intercepting an opponent so that you lessen the chance of injuries to bones, nerves, muscles, tendons, and ligaments.
Torso injuries are more prevalent than most people might think. Most martial arts injury discussions focus on the hands, elbows, arms, knees, and legs, but these are not the only areas of the body that are subject to repetitive injuries. When practicing kicks and punches with a partner the most common target area is the torso. When doing these types of strikes it is important to avoid striking or being struck in the area of the heart. This can have profound negative health consequences. But I can tell you from personal experience that repetitive strikes to the ribs can also cause long-term injury problems. After suffering several broken and dislocated ribs (which are both very painful) I began wearing a chest protector whenever contact was likely. Some more senior students encouraged me to avoid the chest protector so I would “toughen up”. I ignored them, and I encourage you to ignore anyone who thinks you should incur an injury to become a better martial artist. They are wrong.
Whenever you are likely to be involved in contact with another person (or a bag, for that matter) you should wear appropriate hand, arm, leg, head, mouth, foot, and leg protection. A bit of protection now will help prevent years of recurring pain later. Pay attention to pain – it is telling you that something should change.
And last, but certainly not least, consider brain injuries. As all football players should know, repetitive head trauma can lead to permanent brain injury. Students who wish to practice sparring without any head gear are simply asking for major problems later in life. We require that all sparring be done with head gear to help reduce the chances for these injuries. You should understand that head gear does not prevent head injuries, it only lessons the chances for them (and perhaps only by a small amount). Any sudden jarring impact to the head can cause brain injury no matter how much padding you utilize. Do not accept that being hit in the head is normal martial arts behavior or that it demonstrates how indomitable you have become. Find ways to prevent these strikes from landing. Learn to move out of the way, block better, or use more padding. Or perhaps do Kumite instead of full contact sparring. Explore all possible methods to avoid brain injury. These injuries may go completely undetected early, but may have very profound consequences on your behavior and quality of life later.