Ringside Doctors Call For Less Brain Injury in Sparring

Concussions in fights are inevitable. Concussions in training are preventable. That is the sensible premise of a recent article published in the Journal of Combat Sports Medicine calling for reform in the prevalence of head trauma combat sports athletes expose themselves to when training for competition.

In the recent article, titled Safe Sparring Protocol: Reducing Head Impact Exposures During Training in Combat Sport, the physician authors note that it is widely believed that the vast majority of concussive and sub concussive blows combat sports athletes are exposed to occur in training. They call on all stakeholders in the industry to adopt reforms to reduce if not all but eliminate brain trauma from training for the good of the long term health of athletes.

Among the recommendations made are things as simple as education for all involved about the realities of brain trauma with the author noting as follows:

It is recommended that all members of the training camp be educated about concussion identification and management. This especially includes the combatant. It is also recommended that the head trainer and coach take a formal training course in concussion recognition and management such as the “Heads-Up Online Concussion Training Certification Course for Coaches”, developed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Symptoms of mild concussion are predominantly subjective with little to no objective signs. Headache, blurred vision, light and sound sensitivity, nausea, brain fog, attention or concentration difficulty, unsteadiness on feet after a HIE are all signs of concussion. Such a combatant should not be allowed to proceed with training and should be evaluated by a medical professional. If a concussion is documented, a period of cognitive and physical rest is advised. Once the acute post-concussion symptoms have abated, a return-to-fighting protocol is initiated.3 Sparring can resume after medical clearance by the physician.

In addition to education the authors publish proposed guidelines based on their collective observations but call on all stakeholders to review them and help create evidence based standardized guidelines finding a balance between proper fight preparation while minimizing brain harm to athletes.

On top of serious long term health consequences the authors conclude with the sensible observation that too much hard sparring leads to a ‘weaker chin’ when it comes to actual completion with the following warning for fighters

If combatants, trainers, and coaches do not follow our recommendations, the changes we prescribe will have little effect. Combatants may be more likely to follow the guidelines if they realize cumulative head trauma may hinder their athletic performance. The consequences of “neurologic sequelae of multiple concussions and HIEs” should be made clear to all concerned parties. The sequelae include but are not limited to poor balance and decreased reaction time. An NCAA study revealed that those athletes who were exposed to more sub-concussive head impacts during practice had a lower threshold for concussion in the game. In combatants, this translates to a “weaker chin.” Allowing for more recovery between sparring sessions and after competition will allow for optimal performance.


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