How to avoid shoulder injuries in the martial arts.By
Shoulder injuries are one of the most common injuries in martial arts, regardless if you practice MMA or traditional arts. If you’ve been training for a while, chances are high you’ve faced them before. Unfortuntely, so have I. Case in point:
One of the wrestling drills I do in my Sanshou class is “King of the hill”. The concept is very simple and many teachers use it:
- Two students face off and try to throw, sweep or trip each other.
- The first one to fall (or the one at the bottom if both fall) leaves the mat and is replaced by the next student.
- The goal is to stay on the mat as long as possible, fighting fresh opponents every single time.
We do this drill regularly at the end of class as it’s always fun and it really wipes you out if you manage to become “king”. Even if you don’t, it’s good training as you get enough rest to really go at it when it’s your turn again. So everybody gets something out of it.
Last week, we did the drill again, everything went fine and we had a blast. I went home after class, watched some TV to wind down and when I got up, my shoulder ached. I figured, no big deal, been there before. But the next morning, I ached a lot more and I’d lost some mobility and gained some pain whenever I lifted my arm. At that point I went “Damn, again..” and started assessing the damage before beginning on a rehab program. My shoulder’s better now but I’m keeping up the exercises to make sure there’s no lasting damage and I can train at 100% again as soon as possible.
What causes shoulder injuries?
The list of potential causes is long but here are the usual suspects:
- Overdoing it. In our training, we punch, kick and grapple all the time. This puts tremendous stress on your shoulders and if you don’t build in enough recuperation between training sessions, your body becomes prone to injury. When your shoulders are over-fatigued, even a light movement or small technical mistake can cause a tear or sprain. It doesn’t mean you’re weak, it only means your body is tired and telling you to take some rest (like it or not).
- Too many reps. You can overdo it by training too hard for too long and with not enough rest as I explained in the previous bullet. But you can also do too many repetitions of the same movement, class after class, wearing your muscles down. And then suddenly, your shoulders can’t take it anymore.
- Violent shock. Your shoulder is a relatively weak joint because of it’s structure. If you receive a sudden shock to it when you aren’t tightening up the shoulder and it’s surrounding muscles, you can easily injure it. Ask anybody who’s had a shoulder lock slammed on him when he didn’t expect it. Ouch…
There are more shoulder problems than this but for the average martial artist, these are the most common ones.
The biggest issue with shoulder injuries is this: it’s very hard to let them heal completely. You need your arms in almost every activity you do, which makes it difficult to get in enough rest so the problem can go away by healing completely. As a result, too many martial artists and fighters make the mistake of training too hard too soon, thinking it’ll be alright. They then create a chronic injury out of one that could have gone away had they waited a little bit longer. Which sucks big time.
What are the symptoms of a shoulder injury?
So how do you know you messed up your shoulder by resisting that omoplata during BJJ class? Here are a couple tell-tale signs:
- Pain. I can hear the cries of “Well, duh! ” already but it is the clearest indicator something’s wrong. Dull pain, sharp pain, it’s all bad.
- Decreased range of motion. This is another no-brainer: if you suddenly can’t move your shoulder through full range of motion anymore (that means 360°), something is wrong.
- All of the above. Sometimes you’ll have no pain at all, except when you lift or turn your arms in a very specific way. Or you might feel light pain all over but it suddenly hurts much more when you move your arm in one direction and then can’t go any further. Either way, your shoulder is messed up.
- No feeling. If you don’t feel anything anymore in your shoulder or arm, you’re on your way to FUBAR City. Seek medical help right away.
Again, there’s more than this but for the average martial artist, these are good rules of thumb.
What do I do now?
Well, it’s your life so feel free to do whatever you want. Me? I’ve had shoulder problems in the past that took six months to heal because I mistreated them, so now, I take them seriously. Here’s what I do these days:
- If it hurts a LOT right away. Whenever I feel something snap or it hurts like the blazes and doesn’t go away in a few minutes, I’m off to the hospital. In my experience, that means something bad happened and I need to get control of it right away. If I don’t, it usually gets worse the longer I wait to get a doctor to look at it.
- If it hurts a lot but the pain goes away after a few minutes. I take it slow for the remainder of my training session. If I was punching on the heavy bag, I switch to kicking so I can finish my work out well. I still throw some light punches to see if everything is still working or check for pain. If the pain doesn’t go away completely, I’m off to the hospital again the next day.
- If it doesn’t hurt during training but suddenly it does when I get home or the day after. I do what happened to me last week: I check the range of motion, asses the pain and then slowly do stretching and strengthening exercises. Always staying well away from the pain threshold.
That’s how I handle shoulder injuries these days. I don’t get them as much as before, mainly because I work on prevention a lot more now. But as last weeks class demonstrated, you’re never immune to them.
One caveat: when in doubt, seek medical help. This is what works for me and I learned it after a lot of trial and error; things might be different for you.