BJJ sucks–at least that’s what we say when something really hurts, and then we let our friends crank on us and instruct them on how to make it worse!

We are all familiar with the pain BJJ athletes put themselves through. From that arm bar you thought wasn’t that deep to drilling ‘crack head control,’ to that scissor sweep you’ve been trying to perfect. SOMEONE is on the bad end of that, and every move. Thank goodness for forgiving training partners and ice!

Given everything Jiu-Jitsu players put themselves through we still get the same questions:

  • “Which injuries are the most common in BJJ?”
  • “When should I be worried about the pain I get when I’m training?
  • “How can I keep training if I’m hurt?”

As BJJ becomes more popular for competition and for exercise, we have more opportunities to study injuries and pain and to train better to prevent BJJ injuries.

The most recent studies on BJJ injuries tell us that these are the 5 most common injuries to look out for:

  • Knee and elbow joints are the most susceptible to injury.
  • Neck and shoulder injuries commonly result from drilling and asymmetrical practice regimens.
  • Finger and toe injuries occur commonly but are based on repetitive demands more than direct trauma.
  • High-level, competitive BJJ players show a higher incidence of injury rate vs. novice players.
  • For reasons beyond a grappler not tapping, we see an increased prevalence of pain and injury of the lower back.

On a positive note, BJJ athletes have some of the lowest studied injury rates when compared to other mainstream combat and martial arts (TKD, wrestling, Judo, MMA, etc). It REALLY IS the “gentle art”! This is largely due to the training and control that BJJ instills in each action and the way athletes grapple.

The most important thing to consider when you’re injured, whether you’ve hurt something from the above list or another body part, is how to continue working on your game while protecting structures or movements you’ve dinged up. Once you know this, finding positions and specific techniques to drill is kind of easy.

The Very Common But Debilitating “Grappler’s Neck”

We’ve all had ‘grappler’s neck’. This is what happens when you are messing around with Rickson shoulder rolls or drilling certain chokes over and over again. Most of the time it’s a result of not getting properly warmed up (I’m guilty of this too!) and then putting stresses directly onto the upper quarter muscles–the large muscle groups that basically keep your head attached to your shoulders.

Usually, we tolerate the workout or practice session fine. You might notice a twinge during the sparring session, but for the most part when someone is trying to murder you the body tends to ignore anything but mortal peril. Then when you get home, you notice that it’s difficult to turn your head one way or another. In fact, you might not be able to turn your head and neck at all. This is what’s referred to as ‘grappler’s neck’; a shearing injury to the upper quarter muscles that is going to take some working on.

The Ever-Important Self-Assessment

Once you’ve realized you’ve injured yourself, you need to scan the rest of that part of your body and the adjacent parts. You can’t turn your head to the left…but can you turn it to the right? Oh! You can! Good.

You can’t turn your head to the left… but is this impacting your ability to move either or both shoulders? Hmmm. It’s hard to move your left arm very high, but your right arm feels good.

This is the kind of self-scan you should perform after an injury. Determining where your body is injured and the degree of pain is vital to being able to continue training while muscle tweaks heal. No, you shouldn’t go right back to Rickson shoulder rolls and D’arce choke practice, but you can work on your bottom guard retention, your top side control game, knee on belly, and back mount. Consider all of the other jiu-jitsu practices, exercises, and training you should be able to work on, even in the face of a real injury that could take from 10 to 20 days to fully heal.

Lastly, as with most non-catastrophic injuries, it’s almost always WORSE to stop moving completely. Most of us stop training or moving out of fear of hurting ourselves further but, in reality, the stagnation leads to the winding up of the nervous system and movement patterns, which prevent normal, pain-free movement even after an original injury has healed.

Some Tips to Avoid Injury

Oftentimes, it’s only after an injury has occurred that you realize that you could have taken steps to avoid getting hurt. Stay aware of how to safely engage with others and avoid injury–especially so that you don’t prolong and injury when you should be in recovery. Warm up and stretch to avoid over-exerting yourself and know your limits, especially practicing with any new partners.

Knees & Elbows

The joints are especially susceptible to injury since ligaments and tendons take longer to build strength than muscles. In leg locks, the body might get pushed a bit too far in the wrong direction and a knee injury occurs, or when grappling an arm is locked for too long or with too much force, and you receive an elbow injury.
Determine if a ligament is torn or simply partially injured and take it easy on moves that require more flexibility or push back on knees and elbows. Allow yourself time to heal and focus on another aspect. For example–after a knee injury, consider training only upper limb defenses.

Neck & Shoulders

Straining your neck in awkward positions occurs more often than you’d think in BJJ. However, if you are not in an obvious choke or crank submission, you may not realize the position your partner is holding you in may injure your neck and shoulders. At the time, you may simply think “ok my neck is bent a little”, but if you don’t allow for the proper time to heal, you could be looking at 2-3 months for proper recovery.

To make sure a slight neck injury doesn’t become worse and throw you off your game, make sure your sparring partners know you have an injury and take it easy. Don’t use your head as a base or get in any positions where you can’t control an opponent grabbing your head or neck.

Lower Back

Anytime your back flexes deeply in the wrong direction it can affect your spine and cause radiating pain. It’s important to assess a lower back injury to determine whether it’s a strained muscle or a much more serious disc injury.

Muscle injuries usually occur through pulling or lifting in uncomfortable positions that lead to back strain and can be felt a couple of hours after the injury occurs, while a herniated disc results in much more immediate pain. For a strained muscle, you should ice and stretch while avoiding positions that compromise solid spinal alignment and moves that involve twisting or explosive side bending.

Injury Prevention Starts With You

Nobody wants to get hurt but for some reason, many people don’t take the right steps to avoid injuries. If you are serious about your BJJ game and limiting pain, the best way to stay on the mat is to fully prepare your body for training sessions and listen to healing structures. For more tips, check out our extensive video series dealing with BJJ injuries.