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Sparring injuries


Full-contact professional fighters try to inflict punishment by landing blows to the head and upper body of their opponents to either knock them out, render them unable to continue, or at least outscore them. They want to win the prize money. Light-contact and no-contact amateur fighters have a different goal; they try to outscore their opponents with a minimum of injuries. They want the recognition of winning. As a safety precaution, they use protective equipment to soften the force of blows.

Limiting the length of rounds and the number of rounds reduces the effect of fatigue on the fighters. Many injuries occur late in fights, so shorter fights are much safer. Despite these precautions, injuries may still occur.

The most common injuries incurred while training in the martial arts are small cuts (from fingernails or toenails or from glancing strikes that pull and tear the skin) and bruises from strikes that are either blocked or received). Many times, you don’t notice the injuries until after class or hours later.

Even with today’s fighting rules and safety equipment, you still see fighters with twisted noses and cauliflower ears who are starting to exhibit the symptoms of being punch drunk.

Head injuries

A knockout is a concussion. A fighter who is unconscious or who is "out on his feet" has suffered a concussion. A fighter who has been knocked out should be examined by a neurologist. A professional boxer who has been knocked out is required to wait three to six months, depending on where the fight took place before he can fight again.

Cumulative head trauma is another problem. Repeated blows to the head can cause the brain to bang against the side of the skull. This kills brain cells due to bleeding in the brain and leads to small areas of scarring. The result is the "punch-drunk" syndrome, where the fighter's loss of brain tissue is sufficient to interfere with his mental and physical functions. Most professional boxers who have fought more than 50 times, even though they may show no outward signs of brain damage, have inhibited thinking ability and may suffer from headaches, blurred vision, or memory loss.

The most severe head injury is a brain hemorrhage from a violent blow to the head, which can result in paralysis or death. However, this type of injury is rare, especially for those who wear head protection.

Eye injuries

Eye contusions (black eyes) are common but are usually do not cause any long-lasting injury. Thumbing, either intentional or unintentional, can be a problem. A thumb in the eye can be just an irritation that interferes with your fighting ability or it can cause temporary or permanent damage. A cut eyebrow can cause bleeding that interferes with vision.

Nose injuries

Blows to the nose can be irritating, cause bleeding, or the nose can be broken.

Ear injuries

Without head protection, a blow to the ear may cause internal bleeding in the outer ear. If it is not drained by a doctor, over time the blood may form a hard mass, resulting in what is called a cauliflower ear.

The pressure of a gloved fist against an exposed ear may also rupture an eardrum. If you have problems with your hearing, see an ear, nose, and throat specialist. Once your eardrum has been punctured, hearing loss will probably occur. However, over time and with no further injury, the eardrum itself may heal.

Face injuries

The face can receive numerous small cuts and contusions that though not serious can affect your fighting ability.

Bone injures

Leg and arm bones can be bruised which affects the use of the appendage. Breaks or large bones are rare. Breaks are usually limited to the wrist or knuckles or the ankle or foot.

Joint injuries

A muscle can tear from rapid deceleration as a blow lands against an opponent's body. A shoulder may stop more suddenly than the arm and tear the shoulder muscles or the rotator cuff muscles inside the shoulder joint (this happen to me as I was in the middle of a punch and the opponent’s punch hit my shoulder and stopped its motion). Hips, knees, and elbows are also susceptible to injury. Treat a joint injury by resting and icing it until the pain disappears. Then stretch and strengthen the muscle as it heals.

Runner's knee is common in the martial arts because of the characteristic bent-knee stance and rapid, forceful kicks. The proper treatment is to correct the foot position to ease the stress on the knee. The problem is that most martial arts are done barefoot. Wearing an arch or orthodontic in your shoe in daily life will allow your knee pain to subside so that you can function on the mat without a shoe.

Elbows can be hyperextended, For example, when performing a spinning back fist, if the target moves closer, the elbow may strike first and hyperextend.  Tennis elbow can occur from making repetitive strikes (I had this happen during extensive training sessions using the PR-24 nightstick).

Wrist injuries

A fighter may sprain wrist ligaments by hitting an opponent or a heavy bag. This why the wrist is always held locked in place when punching. If you sprain your wrist, rest it for two to three weeks, or longer if it remains painful, icing it intermittently. You may also need to have it splinted by a doctor to allow the ligaments to heal, which takes about three weeks.

The small bones of the wrist may slide out of place if the ligaments holding them together are partially torn. This partial dislocation, which often is the result of constantly hitting the heavy bag, causes pain at the base of the hand when you hit. This is a serious injury that requires surgical repair.

Hand injuries

Injuries may also occur to the person doing the striking. The metacarpal bones, which are the long bones in the palm that connect to the knuckles, can break from the force of a blow on the knuckle. Most commonly, boxers break the fourth and fifth metacarpals; consequently, these are known as "boxer's fractures." These fractures must be set, have a cast applied, and rested for at least eight weeks.

Hand injuries in the martial arts differ slightly from those in boxing because blows are delivered with the sides and back of the hand as well as with a closed fist. Fractures commonly occur in the fifth metacarpal, the bone behind the little finger. These fractures, just as with boxing injuries, need a cast for four to six weeks. You will probably need to wait at least eight weeks before you can start hitting with the hand again.

Toe injuries

Toes get injured when kicking, either by them being hyperextended or jammed. It happens a lot in taekwondo. The usual treatment for a broken toe is to ice it until the pain is gone and then to buddy-tape it to the toe next to it, with gauze between the two toes so that the skin does not rub. The big toe does not buddy-tape well and may require medical treatment. This may include realigning the broken bone and keeping weight off the toe for three to four weeks.

Rib injuries

Rib separations are common among full-contact fighters. The front end of the rib is connected to the breastbone by a piece of cartilage, and this cartilage can be torn from a sharp blow or series of blows to the rib. A rib may break from a hard blow. This injury is more dangerous than a separated rib because the broken rib may become displaced and puncture a lung. Rib injuries are treated with rest (about six weeks) and a wearing rib belt.

Spleen injury

The spleen is under the left rib cage. A soft organ, it is prone to injury from a sharp strike, such as an uppercut to the left ribs. A ruptured spleen bleeds profusely and may cause death if it is not removed rapidly and the bleeding stopped. Since the spleen has no vital function, it is possible to live without one. Even if it does not rupture immediately, a spleen that is bruised by a light blow during sparring may rupture later. Therefore, any spleen injury must be examined by a doctor.

Liver injury

The liver is under the right rib cage. Although the liver is stronger than the spleen, a blow to the right ribs can tear its surface. If the damage is severe, surgery may be needed to repair the tear and stop the bleeding or to remove part of the liver. Any suspected liver damage should be seen by a doctor immediately.

Abdominal injuries

The stomach or intestines may be injured by heavy blows to the abdomen. Bruising these organs can cause bleeding in their lining. See a doctor immediately if you suspect internal bleeding.

A blow to the solar plexus, which is a nerve center in the abdomen, may short-circuit the nervous system causing a knockout. Usually, nerve function is restored within a few minutes. If this happens to you while sparring, rest until you feel normal and then pick up where you left off.


  • Bragman, J. B. (2003). [Online]. Available:
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