Concussion Dangers of heavy sparring

For many years I have trained and competed in both Muay Thai and Boxing, each being a full contact combat sport. The purpose of both is to win by inflicting more damage to your opponent than they are able to inflict upon you. You could argue that concussion is an unwanted side-effect of competition and I would suggest it is a more profound condition in combat sports than any other. Though some would state that all sports derived from combat and whilst this is true not all are designed to test an athletes fighting ability, some measure their agility, speed and stamina.

While a combat sport ends inside a squared circle in front of many fight fans, the lead up to that contest starts up to eight weeks earlier. On average in a lead up to a bout I would run 12 miles per week incorporating sprint and hill runs at least twice per week. I would also complete a strength and conditioning circuit to ensure I kept loss of muscle mass to a minimum. In the evening I would train sport specific and develop in areas I struggled or perceived myself to be weaker in. This training would include partner drills, pad work, bag work, light technical sparring and heavy sparring.

I believe this is a fairly standard routine for most fighters regardless of the level they are fighting at. All that changes the higher up the pecking order you get is the quality of the people you train with and therefore fewer lighter training sessions. It is therefore no surprise to me that a number of high profile combat sport athletes are transitioning away from heavy sparring preferring light technical in its place. The most high profile case I can provide for this is former UFC light heavyweight champion of the world Jon 'Bones' Jones.

Why this move away from heavy sparring? Simply put HEALTH! There is a term called 'accumulative damage'. What this means is that one shot might not harm you on it's own, but repeatedly taking heavy hits will gradually accumulate over time. This will eventually reduce your ability to weather punishment and lead to a shortened career. It therefore makes sense to reduce this risk by lowering the amount of heavy sparring undertaken during a fight camp.

What is concussion?

AMSSM (American Medical Society For Sports Medicine) defines concussion as follows; a traumatically induced transient disturbance of brain function and is caused by a complex pathophysiological process. Concussions have also been referred to as mild traumatic brain injuries (MTBI). While all concussions are MTBIs, not all MTBIs are concussions. Concussions are a subset of MTBIs, on the less-severe end of the brain injury spectrum and are generally self-limited in duration and resolution.

In short a concussion is a form of mild traumatic brain injury and can range from mild to severe. The common misconception is that for a concussion to occur the injured party has to lose consciousness, in fact the opposite is true and the vast majority of people who suffer concussion do not lose consciousness at all.

Concussion can be caused by a fall, bump or blow to the head or body which results in an 'impulsive' movement of the head. Imagine if you will uncooked liver floating in a jar anchored to the centre of the jar by numerous strong membranes. Now picture knocking the jar (not breaking it). This would cause vibrations throughout which would transcend through the fluid creating additional strain on the membranes, which would be working overtime to hold the uncooked liver in place. Another analogy would be a suspension bridge on a windy day, see the clip below.

As evident in the clip, when an external force is applied the supports have to work harder to maintain structural integrity and prevent collapse. The same is true of our brain and the numerous membranes providing it support. The difference here is that our membranes serve a second function to support, that of transmitting and receiving information about our environment and instructing nerve cells to fire. Therefore, when these membranes are put under strain as a result of an external force it can have a long term impact on cognitive ability and in severe cases lead to lifelong disability.

Sometimes athletes do not always know that they have suffered a bump or jolt to the head. As mentioned above, in some cases concussion can be as the result of a trip or fall or even a blow to the body. In these cases it is unlikely that an athlete would seek medical advice. This would probably happen later when symptoms present and persist like a headache or dizziness. It is therefore important to be aware of the signs and symptoms of concussion.

  • Headache
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Balance problems or dizziness
  • Double or fuzzy vision
  • Sensitivity to light or noise
  • Feeling groggy, foggy or sluggish
  • Concentration or memory problems
  • Confusion
  • Irritability
  • Sadness
  • Nervousness or anxiety
  • Sleeping more or less than usual
  • Trouble falling asleep

What most people don't realise about concussion is that it affects the brain's mood centres, including the hippocampus, amygdala and prefrontal brain regions. Whether pre-existing or not, mood disorders complicate the diagnosis of concussion. Consider up to 46% of athletes will experience symptoms of anxiety, depression or irritability following a concussion. This is because of the effect concussion has on the mood centres of the brain.

Heavy sparring

The average boxer with little or no boxing training will likely generate a punching speed of approximately 15 mph. However former welterweight champion and Mancunian legend Ricky 'The Hitman' Hatton could produce a punch with a velocity of 25 mph. Not all pro boxers will generate this kind of speed, let's say for arguments sake the average was 20 mph. Imagine being hit in the head with a padded bat traveling at 20 mph and you will begin to understand that damage accumulates quite quickly.

As you can imagine a boxer is at a high risk of traumatic brain injury especially concussion. Old school boxing trainers with little or no understanding of the physiological effects of brain trauma still encourage heavy sparring, as if that is the magic pill a fighter needs to ensure victory. The truthful, and for them painful, answer is it is not. The shame of it is though, they have their students brainwashed to the belief this is the only way.

I will concede it is the only way... to BRAIN damage!

The scariest thing I have seen recently are promoters who hold open sparring events to judge the level of talent to appear on their shows. Whilst this will help ensure fairer match ups, it again further subjects the athlete to additional brain trauma that they need not necessarily take. The other edge to this sword is the pressure applied to athletes to sell tickets, how does this have anything to do with concussion? As I have discussed concussion is a form of MTBI. This means that symptoms can be made worse by both physical and mental (cognitive) exertion. Thus adding this sales pressure increases the risk of prolonged mental health complications.

A film starring Will Smith discussed in some minor detail the impact of contact sports, the subject under review in the film was American Football. Though the film is new, Chronic Traumatic Encephalopthy (CTE) is not. Originally believed to affect boxers alone, this has expanded to encompass a wider demographic. CTE is a neurodegenerative disease which to date is still being researched. One of the larger problems with the current research into this degenerative disease is that it overlaps with many common neurodegenerative diseases.

That said sports such as boxing where the likelihood of suffering MTBI is increased, raises the risk of developing CTE since this is the only factor linking the two. Until more is known about this disease and its causes it could be deemed speculation that the two are connected. It will be interesting to see how the research into this progresses.

While the research continues I'd like to offer my own observation. One of the purported claims is a higher incidence of suicide of people who suffer with CTE. I personally know of no less than half a dozen suicides of friends and acquaintances from the boxing and Muay Thai circle. Whilst I cannot state whether they had CTE, it is almost certainty that they had a MTBI (concussion).

Created By
Andy Stevens

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