When we start talking about traumatic injuries to the brain and concussions, we rarely include grappling as a source for such issues. So far, the high-velocity impact has been the number one cause of traumatic brain injuries in people. When it comes to athletes, and combat athletes, in particular, hardly anything could measure up to boxing. Until MMA came along. As of late, CTE has been a major subject of research among MMA athletes, football players, soccer players, etc. But, as research suggests, there might actually be such a thing as a BJJ CTE syndrome.
To be completely honest, BJJ CTE research is still in its infancy at best. As you’ll see later on, there are only a handful of studies. even then, those studies do not specifically relate to BJJ CTE but rather look into it as part of traumatic brain injury research. However, some of the results are more than worrying. IS it just a case f isolated incidents or do the subjects of the research shed light on something we take for granted? let’s look at the evidence and the research, as well as some reaction. Then everyone can draw a conclusion of their own. As far as I’m concerned. I’m talking chokes way more seriously from now on!
Traumatic Brain Injuries And CTE
First of all, let’s talk about all these abbreviations. There are two you’ll find in regard to brain trauma – TBI and CTE. TBI stands for Traumatic Brain Injury which is pretty self-explanatory. CTE stands for Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy which refers to the repetitive nature of TBI in some sports. When it comes to contact sports, particularly striking ones, it is clear how repetitive trauma matters.
Without going tint too much detail, let’s see what happens to the brain when you get strikes to the head. Our brains lie in our heads for a reason – the skull is the most protected space we have. Still, the hardness and structure of it is its’ own downfall, when it comes to TBIs. Namely, while you can’t affect the brain directly with a strike, the so-called contrecoup action does just as much damage. This refers to an injury to the brain on the opposite side of where trauma occurs. this happens simply because the brain rattles against the skull which is a very hard surface. So if you get punched in the face, the back of your brain will get trauma due to hitting the posterior side of your inner skull. You get the picture.
A very important thing to remember is that repetitive TBI leads to CTE due to the cumulative effect of the impact. What this means is that every strike that lands on your head matter. In fact, it is much more important how much you accumulate during training and sparring rather than how many times you’ve been knocked out.
But what does any of this has to do with BJJ CTE symptoms? After all, it’s a grappling martial art, right?
Latest Worrying BJJ CTE Research
As much as Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu lacks strike-related head trauma, it makes up for with other types of trauma. Mostly we get banged up all over our bodies, with our joints the prime targets. However, there’s an aspect to BJJ that even other grappling martial arts often lack – the number of chokes. As it turns out, training chokes, and more importantly, being stubborn with them, might actually lead to traumatic brain injuries. Or worse, CTE.
A recent study by Erik Magraken reveals that BJJ CTE might not be such a farfetched thing after all. Namely, in a case study of a military service member who got choked in a BJJ match, Magraken has some interesting findings. The article, published in the peer-reviewed Federal Practitioner journal outlines the effects of choking in this particular case. The subject in question suffered TBI like symptoms in nausea and vertigo, and eventually, a stroke.
A second study, done at a much larger scale, also looks into BJJ CTE symptoms. In it, researchers look at a 40-year old MMA fighter who practiced the sport for over 10 years. With an already diagnosed CTE there was no doubt as to the presence of symptoms, In terms of causes, though, the findings were surprising. They suggested that repetitive choking played just as much of a role as did repetitive sub-concussive trauma from striking during training and competition. The study ties in hypoxia as a major factor in developing further neurological problems. As per the study, a force of just two kilograms on the carotids is enough to cause hypoxia and brain damage.
So far, the results seem worrying and they make sense. However, as is often the case with science, there’s a different view to it as well.
The MMA Factor
Dr. Samuel J. Stellpflug is one of the people who does not agree with BJJ CTE. According to the emergency medicine practitioner, the evidence is still scarce at best. While there’s obviously a need to further investigate the claims of BJJ CTE symptoms, many wouldn’t rush to agree with Stellpflug on the lack of dangers. He is also known to refute certain claims of MMA striking related CTE in the case of other studies. Since we can’t know who is right, the fact remains that much more research is needed in these crucial areas. With more and more people taking up combat martial arts as careers, this should be a priority.
There’s another aspect to these studies I’d like to point out. While the studies did find worrying results, we have to take into account the MMA factor. The second study looks at a subject that has been receiving blows to the head on an almost daily basis for 10 years Whether that in itself is enough to cause the symptoms, or it ties in with chokes as a factor, remains to be seen.
The subject of the first study also has a past in the military. Whether or not he had exposure to TBI causing events is also not clear. Moreover, there’s a host of other health factors, often individual, that determine whether a choke is going to give you a nap or give you BJJ CTE symptoms. Whatever the case, we need to find the truth out, preferably before it is too late for someone.
TBI and CTE are not your garden variety of combat sports injuries. They do not tend to pass by themselves and can really impact your quality of life. CTE might even prove to be fatal in the long run for some athletes. All in all, we need to make sure we know what happens during MMA training and fighting for sure. Moreover, we need to be aware if BJJ CTE is really a thing and should we take way more care when practicing choking techniques.