Most of us are familiar with the term ‘punch drunk’.
We commonly associate ‘punch drunk’ (also referred to as chronic traumatic encephalopathy, CTE) with old boxers who have suffered repeated head traumas so as to cause significant damage to the brain resulting in symptoms of dementia.
Whilst there are many notable examples of boxers who have been visibly and permanently impaired through boxing (e.g. Muhammad Ali is the best known), it is not a condition suffered exclusively by boxers. For example, there are numerous examples of CTE sufferers in American Football. In British football, years of heading heavy footballs is thought to have contributed to dementia suffered by former professional footballers, including several members of England’s 1966 world cup winning team. From having a quick look at the potential causes of CTE, ice hockey, rugby, and many other sports are presenting examples, including MMA.
One current debate on the topic of CTE is whether it is more dangerous to have fewer concussive strikes causing a KO (more common in MMA due to the minimally padded hand gear), or to suffer repeated strikes over a longer period of time. One statistic I’ve come across is that in a UFC MMA contest, after a KO blow, it takes on average 3.5 seconds for the fight to be stopped, during which time a further 2.6 blows are landed to the head. In contrast, in contests finished by TKOs, the loser is hit on average 18.5 times in the last 30 seconds of the fight before it is stopped, and most of these strikes are to the head.
It is not true that every person involved in contact sports develops CTE, though I would put money on everybody who has boxed or practised MMA over a period of time being affected in some way. There will be other factors involved such as lifestyle and genetics that can predispose an individual, and repeated brain traumas may accelerate the inevitable or provide the tipping point.
So are we, who practice traditional martial arts, at greater risk of CTE and related illnesses? Before I provide an answer, it is important to point out that research in this area is still in its infancy and there is a lot we do not know yet regarding the impact of sports and the development of dementia in general. However, and I’m not basing this on any research (and this will depend on your martial art, your instructor and many other factors), I would say that you are unlikely to be at any greater risk when compared to any other type of physical activity.
Of course, that needs to be qualified by some proper research, but in over 30 years of practising various martial arts, I can count on one hand the number of times I have suffered a concussive blow. I have had more head knocks playing football and over a much shorter period of time. I have also witnessed many great martial artists on the mat practising martial arts and instructing well into their very advanced years, without any obvious effect on their mental abilities. So based purely on my own experiences I would suggest that the health benefits of practising traditional martial arts outweigh the risks. As more and more research is done in this area we will learn more.
If you are practising traditional martial arts and are suffering repeated head knocks or concussion, or are at a club where you see frequent concussions, then I think serious questions need to be asked. Instructors and clubs/associations are obliged to provide a safe environment for people to learn, train and compete, and through regular practise, good fitness and technique we will minimise the risk of injury further.