Combat sports are dangerous, and BJJ is no exception. Whether you're new or have years of experience under your belt, it's natural to worry about what kind of damage you might be doing to your body while you train.
And of all the kinds of damage you can do, traumatic brain injury is among the scariest. Today, we'll be looking at what this is, whether you're at risk, and if you are, what you can do to protect yourself.
Does Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Cause Brain Damage?
You should always take precautions while training, but sometimes accidents still do happen. Among the most serious ones that you can witness is brain damage.
Brain damage can manifest in a variety of ways, from mundane ones like headaches, drowsiness, and nausea, to more severe symptoms like seizures, permanently slurred speech, and in the outright most severe cases, even death.
It's arguably the most serious damage that can be done due to BJJ training. Repeatedly being placed in a chokehold can cause unconsciousness, and while it's normally harmless provided that you're released when you tap out, the act has nonetheless been linked to an increased risk of TBI.
Although the risk is still so low that you won't need to worry about it, there have nonetheless been a few reported cases of athletes suffering from TBI while training in Brazilian jiu-jitsu.
This is a huge part of why safety precautions are so important. If practiced correctly, then BJJ moves pose no significant danger. But since submission holds are designed to be released when they become uncomfortable or dangerous, genuine consequences can follow if this isn't done.
What is TBI?
It's worth noting that in order for someone to endure a traumatic brain injury, they must first go through actual brain trauma. This can only be done by a sudden, powerful impact force on the head.
TBI is separated into two categories: closed brain injuries and penetrating brain injuries. Closed brain injuries involve damage done to the brain that doesn't directly involve something piercing your skull, such as the sudden impact of a car crash or your head hitting the concrete.
Penetrating brain injuries are exactly what it says on the tin. In order to run into one, something must first pierce your skull, like a bullet or a knife. Needless to say, this really only happens in particularly gruesome life-or-death situations.
Closed brain injuries are what you want to be careful of. BJJ involves no striking of any kind, but scuffles can be dangerous. Rolling involves a flurry of limbs moving rapidly in many different directions, so it's not surprising if your head gets caught in-between them at one point.
There's also the danger posed by the ground itself. Jujitsukas are never supposed to practice on rough, uneven ground. Specialized tatami mats are first required before any dedicated practice is to take place, which are designed to absorb the force of falls on impact.
Take those mats away, and things can get real dangerous. Any sudden fall can be particularly brutal, if not outright lethal.
Do Chokeholds Pose A Risk To Your Brain Health?
Before you come into BJJ, or any martial art for that matter, you should always remember that there will always be an element of risk involved. Combat sports are built for... well, combat, so you won't always be able to protect yourself, even if you try your best to.
Chokeholds work by blocking your left and right carotid arteries. This leads to a phenomenon known as cerebral ischemia, where the metabolic requirements of the brain are not adequately met by oxygenated blood flow coming into it.
The end result is that your brain suffers from a severe lack of oxygen, causing you to lose consciousness--typically within seconds.
Children and elderly practitioners are most at risk. The brain of someone so young is still undergoing careful development, and any damage done to it has a much greater potential to be detrimental later on in life.
The elder. The cut-off age for this is about 40 to 45 years old. Once you're past that age, then you should be extra careful about trying out chokeholds.
The deciding factor here is the safety precautions put into place. If chokeholds are done responsibly, then they pose little to no actual risk for potential brain damage.
So be sure to wear appropriate protective gear and submit when necessary. The risks here should always be well-understood, and potentially hurting yourself is not worth losing a bout.
Can BJJ Help Protect Your Brain?
Take heart, however, as new research is always emerging.
More recent ones have brought up evidence that BJJ can actually protect the brain instead, especially when comparison to other similar sports.
A key aspect to this is the lack of striking in BJJ. Like we've mentioned, many serious brain-related injuries are typically done through repeated blows to the head, which will never happen in BJJ and isn't even legal in the sport in the first place.
Plus, evidence suggests that the controlled amounts of choking present in the martial art, as well as some high-intensity interval training (HIIT) exercises specific to it, paves the way for adaptive neuroprotection that can actually condition the brain to better handle concussions and the like.
Think of it a little like exercise: the more you work out, the tougher and stronger your body becomes, and the better you'll get at absorbing blows. Obviously, we can't equip our brains with muscles the size of our biceps, but the general idea appears to be the same.
At the very least, these findings indicate that BJJ may not actually pose a greater risk of TBI at all. But like we said, new research is always emerging, so take everything with a grain of salt. A healthy amount of skepticism won't do you any harm, after all.
What About Other Techniques In BJJ?
Submission techniques in BJJ are of particular interest because they involve the use of joint locks and chokes to force an opponent into submission.
Using joint locks and chokes to wear an opponent down, submission techniques are bread and butter in BJJ. These types of techniques are typically very uncomfortable to be in, but there is no reason to assume that they can cause traumatic brain injury.
There are, of course, other risks associated with them, such as cauliflower ear or hyperextensions in associated body parts. Generally, however, you're unlikely to run into anything more serious than minor muscle soreness from constant repetition.
Your joint mobility can be affected with overuse, but implementing simple stretching and reasonable rest periods is a fairly easy way to remedy this.
In general, proper form is necessary to make sure you don't accidentally end up hurting yourself. BJJ sessions are notoriously slow, but this is a necessary evil: instructors often drill jujitsukas incessantly and are unwilling to put them into situations that they can't handle.
So you might run into a boring session every now and then, but this is really for your sake, a way to make sure you don't do anything that you can't properly do yet.
Common knowledge and collective experience from practitioners point to the risk of traumatic brain injury in Brazilian jiu-jitsu. Instructors are aware of these risks and always make sure that their students practice in as safe of an environment as possible.
But this issue is a complex one, and new knowledge and findings often present themselves. The risk may not actually be as bad as it seems, or at the very least, the risk is far lower than what you'd find in other combat sports.
Regardless, always be careful, listen to your instructor, and practice proper precautions. No matter what the results may be, it's always a good idea to do what you can to stay safe.
Curious how BJJ compares to other potentially dangerous martial arts, like judo? Don't worry, we've got you covered!