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Is BJJ actually dangerous? A look at the statistics

The most common injuries in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu according to research

I was recently explaining what Brazilian Jiu Jitsu (BJJ) is to a friend when they asked a very common question: is BJJ dangerous? BJJ looks unsafe at first glance, mostly because of the submissions.

According to recent research based on 2511 matches at statewide Hawaiian BJJ competitions, Brazilian Jiu Jitsu has fewer injuries in competition than wrestling, judo, MMA or Taekwondo. 

The research showed there were only 46 injuries out of 5022 total match participations. The most common injury in these competitions were orthopedic injuries such as sprains.

When it comes to injuries sustained in longer term regular BJJ training, different studies have shown different findings for the most common injuries. Some locations include shoulders, knees, skin, hands and fingers, feet and toes, ribcage, and arms and elbows.

Read on to see the most common injuries in BJJ, the most injury-causing techniques, and tips for reducing injuries.

Brazilian Jiu Jitsu injury statistics in competition

A number of studies have looked into the most common injuries in BJJ training and competition. In BJJ competitions, the study mentioned above by Scoggin et al. found that the most common injuries were orthopaedic injuries, which are injuries to bones, joints, muscles, tendons and ligaments.

According to this study, there were 46 injuries out of 5022 match exposures. Of those 46 injuries, the most common injuries were:

BJJ competition injury statistics

InjuryNo. of injuries
Elbow (orthopaedic)14
Knee (orthopaedic)7
Rib or costochondral fractures7
Foot and ankle (orthopaedic)5
Hand (orthopaedic)4
Shoulder (orthopaedic)4
Lacerations requiring medical care3
Hip (orthopaedic)1
Cervical (orthopaedic)1
Source. Note: heel hooks were not allowed in these competitions.

Brazilian Jiu Jitsu injury statistics in regular training

BJJ athletes and hobbyists will generally train at their gyms much more often than they’ll compete, so it’s worth looking into the research looking into injuries at training or injuries sustained over a longer period of time. Much of this research is based on questionnaires given to athletes which they then fill out themselves.

There are three interesting studies I looked into covering injuries in BJJ at training, and the three had slightly different findings about what were the most common injuries:

  • A 2019 study found the top three injury areas were the knees, shoulders, and ribcage.
  • A 2018 study found that shoulder and knee injuries were the most common in 180 novice and advanced BJJ athletes.
  • A 2017 study found that the three most common injury locations were hands and fingers, feet and toes, and arm and elbow. The study found the most common medically diagnosed injuries were skin infections, injuries to the knee, and foot and toe injuries. 

You can see a breakdown of the findings of the 2017 study Prevalence of Injuries during Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Training by McDonald et al. below:

Overall training injuries by location

Injury locationExample of injuryNo. of injuries
Hand/fingersFinger hyperextension or jammed finger70
Foot/toesToe hyperextension or jammed toe52
Arm elbowHyperextension51
KneeKnee pain or meniscus tear45
BackLower back pain43
ShoulderShoulder pain41
SkinRingworm40
Head/FaceBlack eye or cauliflower ear32
AnkleSprain30
TorsoChest pain27
Source 

The 2019 study above by Moriarty et al. found that 59.2% of the athletes questioned had suffered at least one injury in the previous 6 months. It also found that those with more years of training and those who were heavier had fewer injuries, and those who did more training classes per week and instructors had increased risk of injuries.

What causes more injuries: training or competition?

The 2018 study above looked at injuries in novice and advanced athletes. It found that injuries were slightly higher in training than competition in the novices but were the opposite in advanced athletes:

Experience levelTrainingCompetition
Novice athletes (injured %)54.5%45.5%
Advanced athletes (injured %)33.9%66.1%

Which techniques cause the most injuries in BJJ?

According to the study by Scoggin et al. based on over 2500 competition matches in Hawaii, most orthopaedic injuries were caused by the arm bar, followed by takedowns. 

The arm bar caused 10 out of the 14 elbow injuries recorded in the study due to the powerful hyperextension force it generates. The study noted that elbow injuries from arm bars were generally caused when the competitor resisted the arm bar or didn’t tap out fast enough.

The arm bar caused mayhem in competitor’s elbows.

Takedowns were the next most common cause of elbow injury.

BJJ injuries compared to other martial arts: which martial art has the most injuries?

According to the 2014 research drawn from statewide BJJ competitions in Hawaii from 2005 – 2011, BJJ has fewer injuries compared to judo, MMA, taekwondo and wrestling.

The study compared injuries per 1000 athlete exposures to see which combat sport had the highest rate of injuries. An ‘athlete exposure’ is defined as one competitor’s exposure to injury in one match e.g one match will include two athlete exposures. 

The findings of the study found that BJJ had the lowest injury rate per 1000 athlete exposures compared to other combat sports:

Combat sportInjury rate per 1000 athlete exposures
Brazilian jiu jitsu (BJJ)9.2
Wrestling9.0 – 30.7
Taekwondo20.5 – 139.5
Judo25.3 – 130.6
Mixed martial arts (MMA)236 – 286
Source

Is BJJ hard on your knees?

Knee injuries tend to be some of the more common you might be exposed to in BJJ. I myself have had a knee injury in training which took a few months to settle down (I trained through it but took time out when needed and stopped certain guard-styles which put more pressure on it).

According to the 2014 study of Hawaiian BJJ competitions, the majority of knee injuries sustained in competition were medial collateral ligament (MCL) sprains and lateral collateral ligament (LCL) sprains. The MCL runs along the inside of the knee, and the LCL runs along the outer side of the knee.

A diagram showing the LCL and MCL in the right knee.

These knee injuries were caused by a range of different mechanisms including passing, takedowns and sweeps to name a few.

Tips for minimising injuries in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu

Like any sport or martial art, Brazilian Jiu Jitsu can come with injuries. Here are some tips to avoid them:

  • Tap out early. One of the studies above mentioned that the main reason why arm bars caused so many injuries was because competitors resisted it and didn’t tap out early enough. 
  • Know high risk positions. My gym has a policy where heel hooks aren’t allowed at the white belt level, and above white belt they’re allowed if both people agree to them. If you don’t know the mechanics or risks of heel hooks and choose to allow them in sparring, then it’s up to you to tap early or learn more about them before you agree to them.
  • Be aware of common injuries and skin infections. Knowing the most common injuries and skin infections can be useful to avoid them in future. For example, if your gym educates people about the most common skin infections, infected athletes will know when to avoid training and reduce the spread.
  • Choose the right sparring partners. Roll with people who you can trust not to crank a submission.
  • Avoid overtraining. One of the studies of BJJ athletes found that overuse was the biggest cause (66%) of injuries in novice athletes.

How to treat a BJJ injury for the quickest recovery

Injuries are a normal part of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, so it’s important to give your body the best chance of a speedy recovery. We spoke to John Lee, a Sydney-based physiotherapist from Infinite Health Group to get some expert tips for speeding up injury recovery.

1. What should you do right after your injury?

The most important time in the treatment of an acute injury is in the first 24 hours post injury. When soft tissue is injured, blood vessels are usually damaged too. Thus, blood accumulates around damaged tissue and compresses adjoining tissues, which can further damage tissue.

Traditionally the most appropriate method of allowing the injury to begin its healing process and reduce internal bleeding at the site of injury is the RICE technique:

  • Rest
  • Ice
  • Compression
  • Elevation

In more recent times evidence has shown that ice narrows the diameter of blood vessels which limits blood supply, therefore reducing swelling and pain perception. But because there is vessel narrowing, this does not allow for the arrival of immune cells which are important for the healing process. So our general advice is to only use the “Ice” component of RICE if there is visible swelling, and if pain is greater than a 6/10. 

2. How long after you get injured should you see a physiotherapist/physical therapist?

On the day of the injury, we generally recommend following the above RICE protocol for 24 hours. We usually advise patients to see a physiotherapist/physical therapist after 24 hours of the acute injury happening. Physiotherapists will begin gentle soft tissue mobilisations and acute injury exercise rehabilitation, and will further advise patients on how to best manage their condition in its initial healing stage. 

3. Other tips to ensure faster injury recovery

To state the obvious, patients should listen to their physios first and foremost! However you can supplement the healing process with a few additional tips to speed the recovery along:

  • Keep your body mobile with walking, gentle yoga and a stationary bike. With this being said, be mindful that the pain is less than a 4/10 at all times.
  • The use of epsom magnesium salt baths can help to relax the injured tissue.
  • Consider seeing a remedial massage therapist to keep the neighboring regions to your injury flexible and mobile.
  • The use of anti inflammatory pain relief to settle the discomfort can help to allow your body to move with less pain. Remember that the less you move due to pain, the more likely you are to stiffen up throughout your body.
  • Try Deep Heat or Fisiocrem gels to desensitize the injured area. 

4. How long should you wait before getting back on the mats?

Returning to sport is a tricky question to answer on the basis that not all injuries will have the same healing time. Generally speaking, if it is a:

  • Basic muscle strain, expect to return to the mat by your 4th week of recovery.
  • If you’ve injured a ligament and it is not fully torn, you could expect to get back to the mat for gentle sessions from the 6th week post injury.
  • If you’ve injured an internal structural component such as a knee meniscus or a shoulder AC joint, this can take upwards of 8 weeks to return to the mat safely. 

Once you’ve been to your physiotherapist for a comprehensive assessment of your injury, they will be able to give you a prognose of how long it will take you to get back to BJJ based on the injury’s severity!

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