Physical Therapy and Mixed Martial Arts

In “collision” sports (such as boxing, football and rodeo); athletes purposely hit or collide with each other or inanimate objects, including the ground, with great force. In “contact” sports (such as basketball); athletes routinely make contact with each other or inanimate objects but usually with less force than in collision sports.

– Committee on Sports Medicine and Fitness, American Academy of Pediatrics

“Football isn’t a contact sport; it’s a collision sport. Dancing is a contact sport.”

The above quote is often attributed to either Vince Lombardi or Duffy Daugherty. For the sake of this article let’s substitute mixed martial arts (MMA) for football. If you participate in MMA you’re in a collision sport. Even when dominating an opponent you can get injured. A study published in the North American Journal of Sports Physical Therapy showed that the most common body region injured was the head, face and neck (38.2%). This was followed by lower extremities (30.4%), upper extremities (22.7%), torso (8.2%) and groin (0.5%). The most common structures injured were the nose, shoulder, and toe. That being said, the John Hopkins University School of Medicine Department of Emergency medicine published a report that concluded the overall risk of critical sports-related injury appeared low.

When injuries do occur however you need to know who to see. Do you stop fighting and training? Do you train through the injury? Do you train around the injury? Is the injury severe enough to put you at risk in the octagon if you choose to fight before you’re ready? Will it end your career? Initially after a traumatic injury is sustained, the fighter needs to be screened to determine the severity as well as whether or not a consultation with a specialist such as an orthopedic surgeon is needed. Orthopedic injuries that require surgery will require more time away from the sport as well as more time with a physical therapist. A good physical therapist can help limit atrophy (muscle shrinkage) as well as stiffness. In these cases the fighter usually has to work around his injury, performing general conditioning exercises and activities with his non-injured limbs while respecting the limitations placed on his or her repaired structure. The physical therapist will guide the fighter through the post-operative protocol, helping to restore mobility, strength and function.

The intensity of MMA training often leads to overuse injuries such as tendonopathies, muscle strains and ligament sprains as well. Training through these injuries may be possible with a little guidance and this is another area where a good physical therapist can really help. MMA athletes typically have a high level of motivation and ultimately just need to be educated about the injury. With some basic knowledge the athlete can perform much of the rehabilitation independently. Education is the key. Proper guidance from a physical therapist can go a long way. If the fighter understands the mechanism of injury, the severity of the injury, the nature of the healing process, as well as which parts of the training are acceptable and which are not, it will greatly aid the recovery. More complex pathologies require the mobilization of soft tissues and joints by the physical therapist. A physical therapist will help develop a structured and effective plan to get you back in the octagon. He or she will gradually increase the difficulty of your training by monitoring the volume and intensity of your rehabilitation. For example, a physical therapist will help a fighter determine when he can begin to throw punches by frequently assessing whether or not he has the shoulder strength, movement and stability to perform the activity safely and effectively.

Getting to know an orthopedic physical therapist with experience who understands your goals as an MMA fighter will be very beneficial in keeping you in the octagon.

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