It seems everyone who studies the martial arts wants to learn how to break bones. I’m not sure what the fascination with this aspect of the martial arts is, but people want to know how to do it. There are far more effective ways to disable an opponent than to resort to breaking bones, but curious people want to know.
We should make it clear that we do not condone nor suggest that you should wantonly seek opportunities to break bones. Breaking a bone is a serious and debilitating action that may leave the victim of your efforts disabled, in constant pain, and unable to pursue may of life’s benefits. Breaking a bone should be very, very, far down on your list of things you might do to another person. Do not break a bone unless your safety and well-being or that of others requires such an action.
The easiest way to approach the topic of breaking bones is to note that it is easier to break a small bone than a larger bone (this is not always true for an aging adult). The tibia is much harder to break than the ulna (which is exactly why we seek to avoid bone-on-bone contact). In a related vein, it is easier to break any given bone at its thinnest point rather than at its thickest point (again aging or bone disease can result in different outcomes). So, if your goal is to break a bone, then find a small one and strike it at its thinnest point.
But not all small bones are easy to break due to their location or anatomical function. You may find environmental factors come into play as well. For example, it is not easy to break a person’s little toe if he or she is wearing steel toed boots. But even ignoring this trivial case, breaking the twelfth rib may be a difficult thing to accomplish because of its location. It would be much easier to break a larger and stouter rib simply because it is more accessible.
Let’s look at this from a slightly different perspective. Let’s begin by examining the bones most often broken in the human body. This may give us a few clues regarding possible targets. The most commonly broken bones, in order of frequency, are as follows:
- The clavicle
- The ulna or radius bone
- The wrist (this is often a break of the radius bone near the wrist joint)
- The hip (this is often a break in the upper (proximal) end of the femur due to osteoporosis)
- The ankle (the most common ankle break occurs at the lower end of the fibula near the ankle).
The ulna, radius, and wrist are most commonly broken as a result of a fall. This usually happens when a person tries to break their fall but the stresses to the bone prove too much and a fracture results. These fractures can be quite severe and are often not a clean break, but rather spiral fractures and/or compound fractures.
The clavicle can be broken as the result of a fall similar to the ulna, radius, and wrist. It can also be broken as a result of more direct impact resulting from a car accident, a skating or skiing accident resulting in collision with an obstacle such as a tree, contact during a sporting contest, or any other impact to the upper thorax area. In newborn infants this injury can occur during passage through the birth canal.
The hip joint is normally a very sound joint that is quite difficult to break. It is on the list largely because it is a common point of failure when the skeleton system weakens due to advancing age and poor bone heath.
An ankle fracture occurs when any of the bones at the ankle joint are placed under significant stress as might occur with a severe ankle outturn. This can be a debilitating injury that makes movement, including simply standing, difficult or even impossible.
Breaking Bones via Impact
Of the fractures listed above the ones you would most likely be able to create by using traditional martial arts strikes would be fractures to the ulna, radius, ankle, and clavicle. Let’s look at these and then explore a few other options.
The ankle is most commonly broken by striking with significant force to the outside of leg in the vicinity of and at right angles to the ankle joint. The most common point of contact is near the distal end of the fibula. This causes the ankle to buckle inward as one or more bones in the area of the ankle fracture. The most likely bone to break is the fibula, though other bones may break as well. This takes a great deal of force and you must strike with a weapon or some portion of your own anatomy that can withstand the required impact forces. The only part of your body that can do this reliably is your heel. You are likely to suffer your own fracture if you strike at the ankle with any other part of your anatomy with the forces necessary to break an ankle.
The ulna and radius bones can be directly targeted by something like a Tettsui Uchi or Mawashi Geri that strikes with the ball of the foot rather than the top of the foot. If you wish to target the radius bone then this is best accomplished by striking the bone near the middle of the forearm, just below the main muscles of the forearm. The radius bone is thicker near the wrist and while it is thinner near the elbow joint, it is also covered by substantial overlaying muscle tissues which reduce the likelihood of a fracture in that area.
The ulna, however, is thinnest near the wrist, where there is very limited overlaying muscle tissue. This is the most likely place where something like a Tettsui Uchi might cause an arm fracture. This can best be accomplished by holding the opponent’s arm stationary in some manner and then striking to the ulna a few inches above the wrist.
When a bone in the forearm is broken it makes using that arm quite difficult, both from a pain perspective and from a purely mechanical perspective. The arm may no longer function as it did before. This does not mean the arm is completely useless, but its usefulness will likely be significantly compromised.
The clavicle is the most commonly broken bone for a reason. It is long, not particularly thick, and is thinnest near the middle of its length. A Tettsui Uchi here has a good chance of causing a fracture. A Kakato Geri has an even better chance of causing such a break. But this is assuming you can really land such a complex kick in a conflict. And, of course, if you are far enough away to strike with an ax kick, then we might suggest you are far enough away to consider an escape.
A broken clavicle is a significant injury. The associated arm is now completely useless. The arm simply hangs from the shoulder and cannot normally be moved for any meaningful purpose. It won’t feel very good either.
But bones can be broken via impact in other ways. You might stomp on the top of a foot in an attempt to break a phalanx or metatarsal bone. Your heel is generally much stronger than the other bones in the foot, so when coupled with strongly directed downward forces this can be an effective strike. But if someone is wearing well-covering shoes the impact of the strike can be lessened significantly.
In a similar way the metacarpals and phalanges of the hand are susceptible to blows. In truth, however, these injuries normally result when the person striking hits something that is generally unforgiving. This is in part why we stress proper hand structure when striking with something like a Ken Tsuki. If your hand is out of proper alignment you run the risk of braking one or more of the bones in your hand when your strike lands on a hard target.
Naturally the most likely method for deriving the forces necessary to cause breaks in this way is to employ Otoko No Atemi Waza. These forceful strikes are more likely to derive the required energies and impact forces necessary to break a bone. But this method of breaking bones has some significant problems.
Attempting to intentionally break a bone through purposeful impact strikes is not a reliable method. There are too many variables to be able to accurately predict whether a given strike will break an intended bone. This is in part because your opponent will not remain motionless while you attempt such an action. It is also because factors such as timing, the angle of attack, relative velocities, what part of your body you utilize, and how you strike all play roles in determining the outcome of such an attempt. And let us not forget that if you are striking a bone with one of your bones, then there is certainly a risk that you will come away with a self-induced fracture. There are more reliable ways to break a bone when needed.
While any martial art might use striking as a way to break bones, you will find stand up arts are more likely to use this method than other styles. But this is clearly a generalization. Anyone might use this method if they feel it is essential to break and bone and spot a likely opportunity.
Breaking Bones via Pressure
When striking a bone directly it is quite difficult to cause the bone to break. While such an action is likely to cause some pain and discomfort, it is not a reliable method by which you can achieve bone fractures. A more reliable method is to use pressure.
Pressure is often utilized when trying to break a joint. Breaking a joint does not always mean breaking a bone in the joint. Often this type of break involves injury to a ligament or tendon and not a bone fracture. We will concentrate here on the application of pressure that is intended to break a bone.
The elbow joint is actually three separate joints. The humerus bone has two points of articulation. One for the ulna and another for the radius bone of the forearm. The ulna encapsulates and covers the distal portion of the humerus. The radial bone contacts and rotates about a pivot point up slightly higher on the humerus. Ligaments tightly couple the bones together so they function normally while precluding dangerous movements.
One of the more dangerous movements is hyperextension of the elbow joint. Hyperextension can be caused by pressure at the elbow joint. From a martial arts perspective this is often achieved by trapping a person’s wrist while straightening his or her arm. Direct and abrupt pressure is usually then applied directly on the back of the elbow joint. This may be done by pressing a palm, fist, forearm, Shuto, or bicep into the back of the elbow with substantial force or increasing pressures. With moderate pressure an opponent will typically feel substantial discomfort and pain. With abundant pressure the bones in the elbow will be damaged.
Damage to the elbow joint can result in multiple ways. The most common types of injury include breaking the end of the ulna in the vicinity of the humerus, breaking the tip of the humerus, and pulling the radius away from the humerus causing a dislocation (this more likely to occur if the ulna has been broken). Naturally this will also result in substantial ligament damage within the joint as well.
One point on semantics. When you slam your palm into the back of an opponent’s outstretched arm, are you using pressure or a strike to cause the subsequent break? If you perform this same strike without holding the arm outstretched you are far less likely to cause an elbow injury. So it is a combination of holding the joint in a vulnerable position, and the applied force that causes the break. The break will occur even if pressure is applied very slowly and powerfully. So, whether this is a strike or a pressure break is really a matter of semantics. The joint will likely break in this circumstance.
The knee is a similar joint and breaks here are caused by similar methodology. Pulling the ankle upward and then applying pressure to the front of the knee, perhaps with a forearm strike, can cause such a break. But realize this is no different than kicking into the front of an opponent’s knee when his or her foot is rooted. Both methods hyperextend the knee in a manner that may potentially cause one or more bones to break.
Another leg break can occur when a person is resting on one knee with the ball of the foot on the same side resting on the floor. Pressure or force applied to the middle of the lower leg will potentially cause the fibula, tibia, and/or bones in the foot to break. This can be caused obviously by stomping on the leg with your heel, or by kneeling yourself and pressing your tibia into the back of the opponent’s calf. When training with a partner you need to be aware of this potential break so you avoid applying pressure to the back of an opponent’s leg while he or she is kneeling.
The spinal column is another area that is subject to pressure breaks. Simply driving the heel of your hand into the forehead of a rapidly approaching opponent may be sufficient to cause one of the cervical vertebrae to fracture. This is a potentially fatal strike and should never be employed except in the extraordinary condition in which an opponent represents and imminent threat to your life or the life of others.
Rooting an opponent and then moving his or her shoulders back abruptly while holding or moving the hips forward may be sufficient to cause damage to one of the lumbar vertebrae.
More on Breaking Bones
Breaking a person’s bones is often difficult to do. But there are times when it can be quite easy. But once a break has occurred then at least three things will follow.
The first is that the opponent has lost effective use of some portion of his or her anatomy. Tendons and ligaments that relied on a sound bone will no longer function correctly. Muscle flexures may now move a bone in completely random an ineffective ways, perhaps even resulting to more internal damage.
The second is that some level of pain occurs. This can range from tolerable to excruciating pain. The pain may be immediate, or it may not be noticeable for a few hours (this can occur with a rib injury, for example). The pain may last for a few hours (until the injury can be addressed by medical personnel), or for many weeks as the bones slowly heal. The pain may become intensified if the person attempts to move the affected bone or joint.
The third thing that follows is the opponent has suffered a substantial medical issue. Ligaments may no longer be able to hold a joint within its normal range of motion, resulting in the bones moving in ways that may result in further injury. If the bone has resulted in a compound fracture then the skin will be torn open by the jagged end of the bone. The risk of infection and further tissue damage is substantial. Even without torn skin the bone may do significant internal tissue damage if it is allowed to move. In some cases these injuries can be readily healed, but in other situations the break can lead to a lifetime of disability and pain.
If your intent (misguided or otherwise) is to break a bone then you will take advantage of any opportunity that comes your way. It will not matter whether you consider striking or using pressure to cause the break. But you should ask yourself why you would want to risk a potential debilitating injury to another person.
If an attacker has a knife and your only means of preventing injury to yourself or others is to break the attacker’s elbow, thereby making the use of the knife much less likely, then it would be hard to argue that you were not justified in your actions. If, however, someone pushes you and you trap the person’s wrist and break his or her elbow, it would be hard to justify this as a reasonable response. This latter case risks a potential long-term disability for another person when you could have easily found an alternate way of dealing with the situation.