It’s Time to Talk About Brain Injuries in Contact Sports

According to Brain Injury Canada acquired brain injuries currently affect 1.5 million Canadians. This is more people than are dealing with HIV/AIDS, breast cancer, multiple sclerosis and spinal cord injuries put together. I am one of those Canadians.

Just over a year ago, I was in a wrestling accident. It was an instant of simple bad luck which continues to impact my daily life. In wrestling, my partner and I both shot in for a takedown at the same time and collided head on. Backed by our momentum, we cartoonishly bounced off one another. I had a goose egg on my forehead that I joked looked like a unicorn horn, but – as fighters too often do – I laughed it off. I finished the wrestling class and the Muay Thai class afterwards. Then, with an ever-increasing headache, I drove myself home and took a nap. When I woke up, my eyes would no longer focus. I was massively nauseated, and any amount of light blinded me with pain. A hospital visit confirmed I had a concussion, but thankfully no brain bleeding. The doctors prescribed 10 days of complete rest and predicted a rapid recovery. Unfortunately, this didn’t happen.

I am within the 5-30% of brain injury survivors who develop what is known as post-concussion syndrome (PCS) and, therefore, have symptoms that last beyond a couple of months. In my case, I also had a delayed onset of most of my symptoms, which made it especially difficult to grapple with the severity of my injury early on. While I never lost consciousness, in the days following my fateful head butt I developed chronic debilitating pain, exercise intolerance, exhaustion, vertigo, nausea, migraines, extreme light and noise sensitivity, vision problems, emotional misregulation, depression, memory loss, vision and balance problems to name just a few symptoms.

Within a week, I went from being a full-time athlete and full-time student to being bed bound and unable to walk down my driveway. I watched my muscles atrophy. I watched my carefully crafted plans slip through my fingers.

I watched my friends attend our university graduation parties without me. I watched as if this was happening to someone else, because my brain could no longer process what was happening to my body. I watched and was very very afraid. Surprisingly, I also felt like a failure. I’ve grappled with this feeling a lot since my injury, especially in the early days when I tried to find other fighters who were talking openly about their experiences with brain injury. Eventually though, I had to ask myself: Where are all the brain injured fighters? And why aren’t we talking about brain injuries more candidly in combat sports? I think the unfortunate answer is because, like me, many of us who get injured feel like failures. And that makes us too ashamed to speak.

I have been involved with martial arts for over 15 years. It brought many blessings into my life, but somewhere along the way I internalized the belief that accepting the limitations of the body is synonymous with being weak. I believed that resting when fatigued or in pain was to accept a lesser version of myself, and this – more so than losing any match – was the ultimate failure. I think this is a belief that’s perpetuated in martial arts, where slogans like “don’t accept,” “everyday porrada” and “pain is weakness leaving the body” are thrown around uncritically. More broadly, I think the notion that no pain is worth listening to is a fairly common belief across most competitive sports. While some level of discomfort is necessary in life and in athletics, it is not reasonable or possible to go through life without accepting that the evolutionarily imbedded signals your body is giving you are relevant. While I realize this now, in the early days after my injury, “embrace the suck” was so imbedded in my belief system that, as my brain literally shut down my body, I perceived it as a character flaw.

I am writing now to challenge the notion that actively protecting your brain makes you a coward. I couldn’t find a fighter to use as a role model when I was first injured, so now I hope that someone else can use me. I’ve been involved in martial arts for well over a decade, I’m a second-degree black belt, I’ve fought internationally in multiple disciplines, and I have trained and taught in more gyms that I can count, in many countries, across multiple continents. I hope you hear me when I say this: trying to minimize your chances of getting a brain injury does not make you soft, saying no to dangerous training methods does not make you a coward and, most of all, accepting the limitations generated from an injury does not make you weak. Martial arts asks each of us to set aside our egos. It’s a principal tenet in almost every art I’ve practiced. So I ask you: if our egos do not belong on the mats, why then do we believe our brains are infallible? Is this not the height of hubris?

I know that many people are going to say that brain safety and martial arts cannot possibly go together, that ‘safe fighting’ is an oxymoron. The thing is, I am not advocating for risk-free martial arts any more than I am advocating that we should cave under the weight of any and all of life’s challenges. Life inevitably brings risk, and some of those risks are worth taking. For most people, I believe mindful participation in martial arts would bring them enumerable benefits. I can only speak from my own experience, but I can assure you that martial arts have made me a better person. I started Taekwon-do when I was four years old, and by my teen years I had expanded my horizons to include kickboxing and Muay Thai. Later, I added boxing, Brazilian Jiujitsu and MMA to my arsenal. Many of my most cherished childhood memories happened at the dojang (Taekwon-do gym). Not only the training, but the relationships I forged with people and the core principals of perseverance, determination and patience have carried me throughout my life. Martial arts forged me into a human being who is able to stand firmly in my conviction and conquer seemingly impossible obstacles. Frankly, without the strength I learned in martial arts, I think that the process of watching my able body become disabled would have crushed me.

What I am advocating for is not a complete dismissal of martial arts, or a rejection of all productive pain and struggle; instead, I want us to start having a critical conversation about how we can best protect our brains at all levels of training and why we should all be doing so.

A good parallel to my argument is the conversation around automotive safety. Motor vehicle accidents account for over 35% of all Canadian head traumas, while sports accidents account for 8% in adults, and 28% in children and youth. Would it be reasonable to eliminate cars as a mode of transportation because of the risks involved? No. But we should all wear our seatbelts, cars should have air bags, children should be buckled into their car seats and traffic laws should continue to discourage the behaviours which are the riskiest. I believe it is exactly this kind of logic that should be applied to martial arts.

So, what does it mean to follow safe(r) fighting practices? The answer to this question varies greatly depending on the kind martial art you are practicing and at what level you’re competing. However, here are some of the basics: use appropriate protection (gloves, mouth guards, helmets etc.) for the activity you’re practicing in, limit the amount of contact you are receiving and, most of all, if you receive any kind of head contact that disorients you STOP and take time off. I would also recommend getting pre-concussion baseline testing done by a physiotherapist if you are going to participate in a sport which may involve head contact. Being aware and protecting your brain is not a luxury, it’s a necessity. Ignoring a possible concussion or even just finishing the training session you are taking part in – like I did after my injury – significantly increases the likelihood of a prolonged recovery and the possibility of the sometimes fatal second impact syndrome. Not allowing your brain enough time to heal before returning to sports similarly increases the risks of compounding minor injuries. This may create a cascade effect leading to major symptoms and possibly life-long complications.

I have learned the high price a brain injury demands: daily excruciating pain, putting your entire life on hold, missing out on major life events, not being able to sit in the sun without pain, not being able to have dinner with your loved ones, losing the ability to drive, spending more time in doctors’ offices than you ever thought possible. I implore you, please allow me to be your cautionary tale. You have nothing to prove and everything to lose if you don’t prioritize your brain. So take care of your brain, it’s the only one you have.