Due to the ever increasing popularity of martial arts, and the official adoption of taekwondo as an Olympic sport in 2000, countless numbers of kids and adults alike have taken up the ancient art of defense either as a competitive sport, self defense technique, or simply for exercise and to decrease stress.

While there are many different styles, such as taekwondo, hapkido, and karate, there is still potential for injury. In 2003, the Consumer Product Safety Commission reported more than 70,000 injuries related to martial arts were treated in hospitals, doctors’ offices, clinics, ambulatory surgery centers and emergency rooms.

Some styles of martial arts may be considered as much of a contact sport as football, for example, the training is very different. Unlike other sports where weightlifting to build muscle mass and strength is very important, success in martial arts is built on strategy, technique, mental discipline, endurance and flexibility. “Training with your own body weight used as resistance or working with light weights are preferred methods of preparation,” says Sherwin Ho, MD, orthopedic surgeon and associate professor of surgery, Section of Orthopedics at the University of Chicago. “Exercises that serve to develop strength, balance and flexibility are integral to martial arts training and help prevent injury,” Dr. Ho added.

Sprains, strains and contusions or bruising are some of the more common injuries associated with practicing martial arts. Strains can occur in both muscles and tendons and are caused by a sudden and extreme force that is greater than that area’s ability to handle. Bruising is another common injury seen in martial arts, occurring both in soft tissue areas, and also to bones.

When someone is struck on a bony surface, there may not be any discoloration, or swelling, but the impact may cause small fractures in the outer layers of the bone, which may take weeks to heal completely.

The American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons offers these tips for martial arts participants to train and compete safely:

  • Exercise to strengthen the stabilizer muscles: rotator cuff muscles and hip adductors (inner thigh muscles or groins) and abductors (muscles on the outermost part of the hip), which help to support the back and hips—critical to this activity
  • Maintain proper breathing techniques when practicing martial arts to avoid injury—breathing out during the contraction portion of any stretching movement, and breathing in during the extension portion of any stretching movement
  • Consult with a physician before beginning your conditioning to establish your readiness
    Train under the direction of a martial arts instructor who focuses on form and technique, rather than competitive strategy
  • Wear the appropriate protective gear for your type of activity; for example, taekwondo, as a full contact sport, requires a head guard, a body protector, forearm and shin guards, and a groin guard .

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