Experts weigh in on injuries inside the Octagon

Professional wrestler Chris Benoit’s murder/suicide dramatized brain injuries and Sidney Crosby’s 10 and a half months on the shelf has resulted in a debate over brain injuries. Mixed martial arts, also known as MMA, has found itself right in the middle of it, given the violent nature of the sport.

The Canadian Medical Association, or CMA, called for a ban on MMA back in 2010, while other vocal critics claim the sport is barbaric – such as Arizona Senator John McCain who once described MMA as being “human cock fighting.”

That sentiment, though, isn’t universally held by Canadian medical practitioners.
“As a body of physicians that the public looks to for guidelines and general commentary, we have to be very careful with what we say,” Dr. Chad Dixon says.

Who would have thought that horse riding could cause more concussions than this?

Photo by: Melissa Molloy

“I’d say the concern was the CMA made a similar statement maybe 10 years ago with boxing and there was very little evidence to support that kind of strong comment at the time,” he says.

Dixon, who works at Foothills Medical Centre in Calgary, has been working on a study comparing head injuries and major injury rates across sports with physical contact.
A self-professed MMA fan, Dixon takes issue with the call for a complete ban on MMA.

Dixon points out something that jumped out at him when he was going through data – on a per hour of activity basis, equestrian sports are at the top of the list when it comes to concussions and brain injuries.

“It doesn’t mean that we should put out a statement that says ‘Horse riding should be banned,’” Dixon says.

Rather, Dixon says that people need to be aware of the risks that activities pose and be able to make informed decisions.

“What everyone will agree on is that there’s not a current level of evidence required to make a global position statement and comment like the CMA did,” Dixon says.
Despite the lack of evidence to make informed decisions, the UFC, takes more precautions to protect their athletes from serious injuries than most other professional sports leagues.

Fighters who suffer a concussion must refrain from contact training for a minimum of 45 days and are not allowed to compete in any fights for a minimum of 60 days.  
Pre and post fight MRIs and CAT scans are conducted as well, depending on the regulatory body that is governing the fights, as criteria does vary from region to region.

These precautions, which have been introduced into the UFC as the sport has evolved, has resulted in McCain giving pause and reconsidering his stance on MMA.
In a 2008 interview with British paper the Daily Telegraph McCain says, “the sport has grown up. The rules have been adopted to gives its athletes better protections.”
“The UFC does definitely look out for their fighters. Safety is paramount, especially for this kind of sport,” Calgary-based UFC fighter Nick Ring, who will be participating at UFC  149, says.

“Some of them do require a CAT scan. I’m not a big fan of them,” Ring says.
Ring would be speaking from experience – a concussion forced him out of fighting for over a year.

“Any time I would try to do day to day activities, it was very hard,” he says of his time spent concussed.

“I’d bend over to tie my shoe and I’d feel like fainting. Driving, the acceleration and de-acceleration of the car would make me nauseous.”

Despite his personal experience, Ring doesn’t spend a lot of time thinking about the long term effects MMA may have on his health.

“Whenever you put yourself into a situation like that, the body does get some damage.”

That said, Ring doesn’t see the damage that MMA fighters take as being more serious than what other athletes face.

“As brutal as everybody tries to make MMA out to be, it doesn’t actually have the highest injury rate in the world. It’s football,” he says.

A 2010 report from the Congressional Research Service supports Ring’s claims, stating that the injury rate for professional football players is roughly eight times higher than that of any other professional sports league.

While the UFC was not a part of the report, other evidence supports Ring’s claim about MMA being safer than it appears to be. A 2008 article from the British Journal of Sports Medicine found that while MMA has similar injury rates to other combat sports, the overall risk for serious injury in MMA is relatively low.

As well, a 2006 study published from the Journal of Sports Science and Medicine found that the injury rate in MMA is comparable to other combat sports such as boxing and that the ability for fighters to cause their opponents to tap out could help prevent brain injury due to a lower knockout rate.