How to prevent them, stay healthy and remain on
track within your Jiu Jitsu journey
If you’re reading this then you likely fit into two categories; 1 – You already train Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, and have likely suffered some form of injury in the past. 2 – You’d love to learn Brazilian Jiu Jitsu but are fearful that you may become injured whilst doing so. This blog aims to both inform and dispel myth. It is written not from a medical professional’s viewpoint but from an experienced grapplers’.
If you require specialist advice please seek professional help. At Gracie Barra Roundhay Leeds we work very closely with Ove, Tom and the team at Indergaard Physiotherapy to ensure that our members and team receive the best care possible, prevent injury occurring and, when occasionally it is required, the best treatment available. Check them out at www.indergaardphysio.com.
Brazilian Jiu Jitsu is a contact sport, if you practice it for long enough the law of averages dictates that your body will suffer some form of injury or pain. I’ve been grappling for 20 years but have only needed to take time away from the mat a handful of times due to a grappling related injury, none of them very serious. That’s pretty good all things considered and probably better than most CrossFitters, serious gym-goers or runners could boast. How? I put it down to a few good choices (which you’ll read about later) and a bit of good luck.
But if you participate in anything combative some form of pain or injury is likely, in a way it’s what makes the activity so rewarding. Training intensely and with a small element of risk promotes self development in the form of resilience, confidence, mental toughness and accountability. Perhaps most importantly training intensely teaches us to have limits, to know when to stop and to care for ourselves and to know how to care and support others. Selfish wrecking-ball students who are unable to monitor their negative physical impact on others rarely last long in the academy, they are spotted early by Professors and asked to leave. Injuring one’s own training partners results directly in one’s inability to train again the next day as there’s only you left on the mat!
So the key message here is acceptance. Accept that you may very occasionally need to take some time off training to allow your body to heal (even better to spot the signs of potential injury and take action to prevent it – see below) and accept that without training the art of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu (or similar) you won’t ever be the person that you could eventually become. Worth the risk in my opinion.
One of the amazing benefits of regular physical activity is that you learn about your body. You learn what you’re good at and what you need to improve. Critically you learn your movement and mobility limitations, an inability to squat correctly for example and, if you’re like me and most others a few years ago, you put it down to genetics and do nothing about it. But the movement revolution has got folks talking about mobility rather than how much weight they bench and that’s a good thing. It’s now cool to trigger point and ice bath. We now understand that without proper movement mechanics and healthy joints injury is inevitable. It’s just a matter of time. So the best thing you can do to stay injury free is to dedicate some of your day (20-30 minutes everyday is what I invest) to improving your ability to move. This could be soft tissue work in the form of a foam roller or lacrosse ball following training or a set of movement pattern drills first thing in the morning which have been prescribed to encourage better motor control. Whatever you do, see it as an investment in yourself. Do it now because if you don’t your body is simply a ticking time-bomb just waiting to blow! And those 20-30 minutes a day are a far better investment compared to 6 months laid up in a leg-brace watching Netflix and wishing you could train.
The second most important thing you can do to remain on the mat is to train smart.
I’ve been a white belt in BJJ, I know it’s impossible to roll with creativity and calmness at that stage of the journey, I also know that’s the stage when most injuries occur. Ask any Black Belt and they rarely look forward to rolling with a brand new white belt, especially a competitive or athletically gifted one. Why? The chances of injury set against the enjoyment of the roll just don’t stack up. We do it because we know how important it is for our student’s growth and we recall how it felt as a white belt to share that moment with our teachers, nevertheless it’s a dangerous pursuit. Too much energy and too little technique equal an injury waiting to happen. The sooner one is able to relax whilst rolling and favour technique over power the safer and more enjoyable the practice becomes. I’m not saying that every roll should be light but intense sparring should be dedicated to only 20% of your rolling time, anymore and you risk injury, over-training and restrict your room for growth. The remaining 80% should be experiential learning, losing often and developing your weaknesses and you can’t do that if you’re holding on to that grip like you’re trying to save your child from a cliff-edge.
Prevention is always better than the cure. This focus for our training is vitally important and only comes with experience. Making good choices and investing in our movement early will eventually pay dividends and allow us the ultimate reward of continuing our Jiu Jitsu journey long into old age.
An all too familiar problem for Jiu Jitsu players – for years I woke up with a stiff neck. I put it down to the inevitability of a sport that required others to attempt to strangle me and I went back to the mat most evenings further worsening the issue. My neck only ever felt better when I had time away from Jiu Jitsu. Funny that! What I didn’t understand at the time was that I had the tools to fix this problem. There wasn’t any pain, there hadn’t been any catastrophic cracks or comporessions and therefore I wasn’t injured, I was just stiff but I was heading down a one-way street towards a serious injury or problem. Whilst the stiffness was in my neck, my neck wasn’t the issue. Years of hunching up to protect it had inflamed my traps and added to my inflamed and knotted up rhomboids, lats and rear-delts from all the pulling and gripping. It was a classic overuse problem and I fixed it (almost overnight) by smashing my upper back with a lacrosse ball like a man possessed. In hindsight I could have prevented the issue and when faced with a movement limitation I should have taken some time off to fix it, if I had I would’ve been back to training fully much quicker.
In my experience you know when you’re injured. You usually hear something pop or crack during activity and that’s usually followed by swelling and pain. In all cases you should stop training immediately and seek professional help either from your doctor or a qualified physical therapist. Staring down the barrel of 6 weeks off Jiu Jitsu is a tough pill to swallow but you have no option. Continue and you are only prolonging recovery time and potentially causing damage that could end your Jiu Jitsu journey forever.
When you start training BJJ however you will have times when you feel some discomfort or pain and it is still ok to train. Usually this presents as bruising or soft tissue and joint tenderness and is particularly common in the fingers, hands, ribs, chest and hips. This often is your body adjusting to new stimuli and is a process of hardening you up, embrace it. Muscle rubs and hot water treatments can help as can some (properly administered) taping of the fingers. Taping can also enable you to continue training after finger sprains and some dislocations, just don’t be that guy with all his fingers bound in tape just because “I’m living the Jitz lifestyle bro”!
The good news is that the longer you train the more your body adapts to the demands of physical contact and gripping and the tougher it becomes. Add to this your newly developed understanding of the benefits of dialing down the energy and it all adds up to a drastically reduced risk of injury
So we’ve discussed the difference between a proper injury and discomfort and we’ve also touched on how discomfort, if not dealt with, can eventually lead to something more serious.
If your discomfort or pain is manageable and you can still move, even if that movement is reduced, I’d encourage you to participate in class to some degree. You might only drill the technique portion and skip any rolling or specific training but that’s still a really good way to stay motivated and to learn new things. It’ll keep your body moving and will promote recovery if done safely. Even if you can’t train, say because you are injured, I’d still strongly encourage you to go to your academy and watch the classes from the edge of the mat. This retains your connection to Jiu Jitsu and your community and you’ll still be picking up new techniques and concepts by watching both your instructor teach and by studying your teammates roll. Crucially, but perhaps a less obvious benefit, is that it maintains your weekly routine of heading to the academy as you usually would, perhaps twice or three times per week, as this is one of the key factors in determining whether or not you continue to train Jiu Jitsu after you’re healed.
I’ve seen lots of people take time away from Jiu Jitsu for lots of reasons, some return but many do not. I believe the reason most don’t return is because they worry that they’ll have forgotten what to do and that their peers will have progressed beyond their reach resulting in tapping often to those who you may have gotten the better of previously. This is your ego talking.
A failure to see their Jiu Jitsu as uniquely their own journey has been the ending of many a fantastic grappler. In our academy at Gracie Barra Roundhay Leeds reads a quote by Jordan B. Peterson, ‘Compare yourself to who you were yesterday, not to who somebody else is today’. I strategically placed it so it is one of the last things our members see as they leave their academy. Remembering that quote will ensure you retain perspective on your journey and will make it much more likely that you will stay in the game.
One of main reasons people end their Jiu Jitsu journey prematurely is through the lack of a growth mindset. A long term injury doesn’t need to result in the end of your journey. You may choose to view it as a chance to take a step back from regular training and focus on other hobbies, knowing however that you will be back on the mat as soon as possible. If you’re smart that new hobby would support your longer term goals in Jiu Jitsu, Yoga practice being an obvious low-impact choice. That way you’re still moving forward on your Jiu Jitsu path and you’ll be much more likely to return to training when fully healed. You might even be better for the break!
A great way to keep on track if you really can’t make it to your academy for a prolonged period of time is to create a mind-map of your entire Jiu Jitsu game and/or knowledge. This can be similar to a spider graph in design or simply a list headed with each position in Jiu Jitsu and the techniques you know, and crucially don’t know, listed beneath. Focus on understanding and developing your ‘blindspots’ so that you create the most well-rounded and complete version of yourself on the mat.
One final option might be to volunteer your services to the academy. I’m sure your school owner would really appreciate the help and it maintains your connection with both the facility and more importantly your community. It also maintains routine and offers you an ability to learn new skills. This might be cleaning the mats, welcoming new trial members or helping with sales or surveys of existing members.
As stated at the beginning of this blog, should you sustain an injury or begin to feel significant discomfort I would highly recommend scheduling an appointment with a medical practitioner. To help with an early stage understanding of how your body may feel and/or adapt once you start training Brazilian Jiu Jitsu regularly I’ve included a brief list of common issues for your reference. This list is not exhaustive.
Expect some bruising and soft tissue damage in the early stages of your Jiu Jitsu journey, this is normal and your body will adapt. Bruising occurs less often after the first 6 months but may return at times. You should continue to train unless the area is extremely painful. The areas of the body subjected to the most amount of pressure and therefore most likely to bruise are the upper chest and shoulders, upper arms, hips, thighs and lower legs.
If you are training in the gi then it is also common to suffer from some minor burns and/or scrapes particularly around the softer areas of the face. This normally occurs as your training partners attempt strangles using the collars and presents most often on the neck and around the eyes and eyelids.
Swelling often occurs with injury and so if you notice swelling you should get it assessed. You may experience some pain-free swelling of the finger joints and this is not normally an issue but it may restrict movement. The overuse of your tendons whilst gripping is likely the cause.
Stiffness will occur frequently throughout your journey as a result of intense training. Stiffness around the hips and neck are most common and I would recommend the strategies mentioned above to reduce the issue. Unless our stiffness is severely limiting your movement you should still be ok to train with possibly some modifications to your movement.
This is probably the most common area that suffers from regular training. The consistent demands placed upon your neck often result in stiffness, sometimes severe, and can present as significant pain. There are a number of things you might consider to minimise issues including; some low-impact neck strengthening exercises, be sure to build up slowly and always train within your limits. Rolling in a manner which minimises pressure on the neck, avoiding inverting specifically but also avoid being stacked as this can be one of the main causes of neck stiffness and injury.
As previously described, neck stiffness is often associated with inflammation or stiffness further down the chain, particularly in the traps and rhomboids. Regular massage and rest is usually the best way to relieve any problems.
Knowing when, how and with what effort to grip is a skill learned over time. Most people new to Jiu Jitsu will often grip too tightly and for too long and this can cause joint stiffness and fatigue around the hands, finger and wrists.
Taping the fingers can help to support those small joints particularly after injury. Learn to tape your fingers properly using a supporting cross-method rather than just wrapping tape around and around your joints as this does little for your fingers. As soon as you are able to grip again with full range of motion and without pain remove tape during training so your fingers and hands become accustomed to the new demands placed upon them.
Sprained fingers and wrists can be a common occurrence and usually occur accidentally. Remember Jiu Jitsu is a combative martial art and therefore some level of acceptance for accidental injury must occur. Try and find ways around the problem and endeavour to continue your practice either by taping, using specialist sport supports or only training using open palms/clenched fists (no grips). See this as an opportunity to train your no-gi more or to develop other techniques and areas of your game that require minimal gripping. A good strategy for continued development is to focus on positional dominance on top without the use of grips, using your balance and body angles to apply pressure. Long term wrist and hand injuries that are not healing well should be referred to a medical specialist.
I developed swollen cauliflower ears quickly but have also trained with many others who have not despite a heavy pressure game and years on the mat. Blows or significant pressure to the ears can cause separation of the cartridge and skin resulting in bleeding within the cavity and clotting. In mild cases one is able to self-drain the liquid by acquiring some small needles with syringes attached and simply dealing with the issue personally. It goes without saying that you should only use new, clean needles and these must be disposed of safely.
My own experience was that there may become a point when your ears regularly swell and this can lead to disfigurement without quick intervention. Medical treatment to cut out the clot and stitch the tissues back together is the only option if you want to preserve a normal (ish) shaped ear. I was back to training within days.
To continue training, or to prevent this issue happening, consider using wrestling style ear guards although in my experience they do change the Jiu Jitsu experience detrimentally. It’s a personal choice.
Very occasionally catastrophic injuries do occur. Most frequently as a result of poor application of technique on the part of one student and/or the other being slow to tap. I instruct my students to apply any submission steadily, starting at around 70% pressure and building to the finish, as this gives time for their training partners to tap and also builds an awareness of sound technique and control. Applying 100% pressure to a submission immediately can be dangerous and may also result in a panic tap rather than a tap from the technique itself. Competition and self-defence are different situations and you must deal with each with the appropriate amount of force.
Other situations which can cause joint damage are rolling out of leg locks incorrectly and landing awkwardly, most often from standing or when being taken down. These accidents are unfortunate and often lead to many weeks or months off the mat. Training with an awareness of others on the mat and in an academy with good floor and wall matting is important.
Another regular cause of joint pain is a lack of mobility. The practice of Jiu Jitsu demands sound movement mechanics of the major joints, specifically the hips and shoulders. Incorporating regular mobility exercises into your daily or weekly routines will do wonders for maintaining healthy joints and great movement on the mat. The good news is that regular Jiu Jitsu training can also improve your ability to move provided you recover well.
More common than fractures are ligament and tendon pulls and strains. Occurring mainly from the resistance of a joint submission this type of injury has varying degrees of severity. Minor strains, often accompanied with popping sounds within the joint, heal fairly quickly and can often be trained around with some degree of success. Serious tears could put you out of action for months.
Tendinitis, particularly around the elbow joint, can occur due to the sudden demands placed upon the flexors in the fingers and hands when gripping often. This sometimes is also felt in the finger joints and wrists. It’s common for the tendons to strengthen and thicken over time creating more resilience and usefully a stronger grip.
Rest is always the best cure. See a medical professional if your pain is acute or long lasting.
Thankfully broken bones are a very rare occurrence in the practice of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu as we focus on attacking the weakest links in limbs, the joints. In recent years adjustments have been made to some rules protecting less experienced competitive athletes from some common situations that have caused fractures in the past. Fractures happen most often accidentally, again from falling badly and with the weight of our partner often adding insult to injury. Long periods of rest will be required as will careful management and medical interventions.
This blog should not be used as medical reference material, it is written from a grappler’s perspective and taken from over 20 years on the mat. Building a trusting relationship with a high performance physiotherapy team like those at Indergaard Physiotherapy is key to your success and long term health.
Brazilian Jiu Jitsu is an extremely safe and effective sport to practice and in my view the results far outweigh the risks not only physically but also in how Jiu Jitsu positively affects all aspects of our existence, especially our mental wellbeing.
To stay on the mat for the longest and happiest amount of time you should always take the long view when thinking about your Jiu Jitsu journey. Look after yourself and your training partners and be humble enough to tap and learn from your mistakes. There will always be times when you hurt yourself, see this experience as another opportunity to develop your personal resolve, resilience and commitment. Avoid blaming others.
If the journey were too easy and without challenge, risk or uncertainty it probably wouldn’t be worth it. Train often and train smart. Good luck on your journey.