SPORTS SCIENCE – TINDAL: MMA, the UFC, and Concussions

By Adam Tindal, MMATorch Specialist

It should come as no surprise that in the purest form of competition, what we all know as mixed martial arts, brain trauma is most likely an inevitability for fighters. Where knockouts and suplex slams are cheered as spectacle, the fighters subjected to them are left only with faded memories and an everlasting headache.

According to the Sports Concussion Institute, a concussion is defined as a complex pathophysiological process induced by either a direct or indirect blow to the brain. Not necessarily just a punch or kick could concuss an athlete. As stated above, an indirect blow to the body can cause a potentially dangerous jolt to the brain also. Aggressive double leg takedowns and overhead slams are extremely forceful on the body.

There are many signs to a concussion that cover a broad range of symptoms such as physical, cognitive, emotional, and even basic maintenance like interrupted sleep patterns. Headaches and nausea are common physical symptoms as well as sensitivity to light. Depression and irritability are a couple of ways a concussion can affect your emotional state.

A difficulty concentrating or recalling memories are some of the cognitive signs. Many stories have been told of fighters not remembering parts of their fight and forgetting their drive home after a hard sparring practice. Even scarier instances have described athletes wandering into department stores or restaurants and not realizing how they got there.

Instinctively many athletes and coaches consider these symptoms as only temporary. Once the fighter has taken sufficient time off, which is always not enough, and can pass a basic concussion screening test, they are essentially good to jump right back into hard training. However, there is a degenerative neurological disease known as Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) that can result from concussions or repeated head trauma that develops over time.

The repeated punishment fighters continue to absorb during practice on a daily basis will accelerate their potential to develop CTE. The NFL is already experiencing both present and past players showing signs of the disease. Hall of Famer Tony Dorsett has been diagnosed and an autopsy of the late Junior Seau, who committed suicide in 2012, showed signs as well.

As of right now the UFC has no permanent, concrete testing protocol in place. They rely on the medical staff of the state athletic commission to assess and diagnose a fighter upon completion of their bout. If a concussion is detected, a mandatory 90 day suspension is handed down with the advice of no contact for that entire duration, yet there is no follow up to ensure the athlete adheres to it. Three months off is great for the fighter, but every concussion affects every person differently and symptoms have been known to come and go long after the 90 days. Just ask T.J. Grant.

It should not go unstated, however, that the UFC is in the process of developing a state of the art facility to assist with fighter rehab, injury prevention, and medical assistance.  They also provide fighters with very good health care benefits in regards to physical injury, but there has to be more to offer for concussive, neurological injury as well.

If a fighter is experiencing even the slightest of symptoms, he should be getting checked by UFC staffed neurologists on a weekly basis. Doctors need to be ensuring that contact in training is entirely absent. If a concussion is detected, any scheduled bouts should be cancelled until the fighter passes an extensive and detailed screening protocol.

The concussion should be the most feared injury for athletes competing in combat sports and the measures taken by coaches and doctors to avoid them need to be obeyed without question.

(Adam Tindal of Orlando, Fla. is new MMATorch Specialist columnist focused on the sports science of exercise. He is a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist, Performance Enhancing Specialist, and has USA Weightlifting certification . He studied exercise science at UCF and current works for a sports performance company in Orlando. He has practiced Muay Thai for nearly ten years and is a passionate follower of MMA.)

READ ADAM TINDAL’S PREVIOUS ARTICLE: SPORTS SCIENCE – TINDAL: Does the aerobic capacity of Nate Diaz enhance his durability?

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