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The Brain Trauma Issue In MMA

By Adam Trainor October 11, 2019

Mixed martial arts (MMA) is a sport that has had evolved from no holds barred fights with no gloves into one of the most-watched sports in the world today.

This high paced combat sport keeps fans on their feet cheering for that fight-ending submission or KO.

In the words of Joe Rogan: "MMA is high level problem solving with dire physical consequences." Exciting sport.

However:

We know that there are dangers that come with participating in combat sports.

But with sanctioned MMA still being relatively young, the level of damage competitors sustain due to TBIs is still unknown.

But First Things First... What is TBI?

TBI stands for “traumatic brain injury” and it is always a possibility of happening to anyone that trains/competes in MMA.

TBI can be mild, severe or even permanent brain damage that will affect a person’s ability to function properly.

The symptoms of TBI are:

  ○  Loss of consciousness

  ○  Confusion and disorientation

  ○  Memory loss / amnesia

  ○  Fatigue

  ○  Headaches

  ○  Visual problems

  ○  Poor attention / concentration

  ○  Sleep disturbances

  ○  Dizziness / loss of balance

  ○  Irritability / emotional disturbances

  ○  Feelings of depression

  ○  Seizures

  ○  Vomiting

    What Do The Studies Say?

    According to St. Michael’s Hospital, their neurologists reviewed 18 studies between 1990-2016 on thousands of MMA fighters and all of the data collected was deemed... insufficient.

    There wasn’t enough data to make an exact conclusion due to the lack of protocol for concussions within athletic commissions, which don’t keep track of concussions their competitors sustain. 

    That Said, CTE Is Still A Looming Problem...

    Even though data from TBI studies have been inconclusive, it doesn’t mean there isn’t a possibility that fighters will suffer long term effects further down the road.

    In all contact sports, there are multiple reports of athletes (former and current) suffering from “chronic traumatic encephalopathy” or CTE, a neurodegenerative disease that is caused by repeated head shots.

    The worst thing about CTE?

    The symptoms aren’t seen until years after the injuries.

    There are two documented cases of CTE with old fan-favorite fighters Gary "Big Daddy" Goodridge and Renato "Babalu" Sobral, who have opened up about their brain health issues after putting up their gloves.

    Goodridge was an exciting fighter who competed on some of the first UFC events and was a well-decorated kickboxer, but at 53 Gary is suffering from the effects of CTE.

    He took a fair amount of symptomatic concussions during his career and now needs to take a number of different medicines to help him function and has to keep notes around his house reminding him to do basic tasks.

    He now works to help improve fighter safety, so that other fighters won’t have to suffer as he has.

    Sobral was a veteran of almost 50 fights and has opened up about his issues six years after retiring. He now says he has zero balance and lost the sight in his left eye.

    Protocol Advancing With The Sport

    As the sport continues to evolve, so has the protocol for improving fighter safety. Athletic Commissions are now taking important steps to help improve fighter safety in the ring/cage.

    California’s athletic commission now requires fighters to pass pre- and post-fight tests called the C3 tests to measure a fighter’s state of cognition before and after a fight.

    The good part of these tests is that the winners also have to take the test to make sure they didn’t suffer any brain injuries that in the past would have gone undetected (full story here).

    Other state commissions like California have post-concussion protocols that give out medical suspensions to fighters based on the severity of the KO/TKO.

    That means anywhere from 30 days to 180 days and medical clearance from a doctor with a clean CT, MRI, or electroencephalogram scan to clear them to return to competition.

    The Association of Ringside Physicians (ARP) after doing research also released a post-concussion protocol guide saying fighters cannot compete or even spar for a span of 30-90 days after the trauma.  

    While it is great that state commissions are taking steps to improve fighter safety, they don’t all go by the same rule sets and until there is a solid system all where states abide to help further protect fighters, there will still be flaws in the regulations.

    Margins For Error? Glad You Asked...

    It seems that the biggest flaws in the studies and data collected so far are as follows:

    Still Not Enough Data. As I said earlier, the sport is still young and it may take years to gain enough data to see the long term effects of TBI in fighters.

    Injuries in Training. Studies don’t consider the damage fighters take in training and it is impossible to police the way fighters train. Most damage a fighter sustains throughout their career is in training rather than in the actual fights. It would also be impossible to gather this data, because no MMA gym trains the same way and all injury stats would be inconsistent between gyms. 

    Injuries in Recreational MMA. It is highly unlikely that any of these studies accounted for the people that train MMA recreationally. Since MMA hobbyists don’t compete, they usually train for health purposes and not all do live sparring.

    Though admittedly, the number of head injuries within MMA hobbyists would be considerably lower than with the high-intensity competitors if they were ever collected.

    What Can Be Done?

    There will always be inherent dangers that come from training/competing in MMA, so it is up to everyone involved in the sport to stay informed on the risks of TBI and make sure their health is better protected as the sport continues to grow.

    The UFC is now a multi billion dollar promotion and more popular than ever, so with the help of state commissions, they will need to continue investing in research to further protect fighters and prolong their careers.

    Continuing educating fight doctors who moderate the events is essential so they’re knowledgeable about symptoms of TBI and can conduct more thorough tests.

    Referees being the protectors of fighters in the cage/ring will also need further education on TBI to save competitors from sustaining further potential brain injuries.

    Commissions can’t regulate training in gyms, so coaches need to protect their fighters and non-competitive students by updating their training methods to where there’d be less needless head contact in class.

    People that train must know the risks they’re taking and understand that they need to make their safety a priority. 

    Sources/Citations:

    https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2017/12/171222090304.htm

    https://www.sacbee.com/sports/article120957153.html

    https://mayfieldclinic.com/pe-tbi.htm

    https://www.bloodyelbow.com/2018/8/18/17693090/concussions-mma-boxing-association-ringside-physicians-release-new-guidelines-cte-brain-health-news

    https://www.mmafighting.com/2012/3/13/2867460/the-fighter-who-stayed-too-long

    https://www.mmafighting.com/2019/4/30/18514466/retired-fighter-renato-sobral-cte-issues-mma


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