March 24, 2006
Head injury may be major risk in sport fighting
NEW YORK -- Blows to the head often leading to concussion may be the single most common ending to "no-holds-barred" sport fighting, according to a new study.
The sport -- known variously as mixed martial arts fighting, cage fighting and ultimate fighting -- is basically a blend of martial arts, wrestling and street fighting. Competitions are banned in some U.S. states, but others allow them, and pay-per-view TV has brought matches to a wide audience.
Critics call the sport barbaric, as fighters try to knock each other out with punches, elbow strikes, choke holds and body throws, to name a few maneuvers. Defenders say no-holds-barred fighting is as legitimate as other combat sports, with one argument being that boxing is more likely to cause serious head trauma.
But the new study, published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, suggests that mixed martial arts actually poses a greater risk of concussion.
In a review of 642 televised matches, Dr. George J. Buse of the Cannon Air Force Base in Clovis, New Mexico, found that 28 percent were stopped because a fighter suffered a head impact that left him disoriented or unresponsive.
That proportion is much higher than what's been documented in other combat sports, including boxing and kickboxing, according to Buse.
The study has its limits, however. Buse viewed videotapes of mixed martial arts matches televised between 1993 and 2003, and documented how each fight ended. Though head blows accounted for the highest proportion of match stoppages, it's not clear how severely injured each fighter was.
Still, Buse writes, it's likely that the signs these fighters displayed -- altered consciousness, unsteady legs -- were the result of a concussion.
He estimates that there could have been 48 concussions per 1,000 fighters in this study -- compared with the rate of 19 per 1,000 that has been found among professional kickboxers.
Other match-ending moments included neck chokes (14 percent) and "musculoskeletal stress" from maneuvers such as joint locks (16 percent).
As mentioned, video analysis alone cannot determine the extent to which fighters were injured in any of these situations, Buse acknowledges. "However," he writes, "this study did identify salient medical issues, of which blunt head trauma may be most concerning." More studies, he concludes, should look into the long-term physical toll of the sport.
SOURCE: British Journal of Sports Medicine, February 2006.