Brain damage has long been considered a worry only for boxers, whose trade is punching people in the head. In recent years, studies have shown that many more athletes, like soccer and water polo players, suffer from concussions and brain damage, even those that would seem much safer. But where does BJJ fit in terms of brain damage probability?
Due to training and competition, BJJ practitioners are at a very low risk of brain damage. Losing consciousness due to strangulation is relatively safe for most people and does not cause lasting damage. The other factor is concussions, which are relatively light and rare in grappling.
Worrying about brain damage is completely normal, and investigating the possibility of suffering trauma is something every practitioner should do. Here is what I have found on the topic.
Does BJJ Cause Brain Damage?
Brazilian jiu-jitsu, in general, does not cause brain damage. However, there is a slight chance for brain damage to happen either by getting unconscious due to strangulation or by getting a concussion as a result of a hit to the head.
Let’s first look at the most obvious method: concussions.
Concussions are rare in jiu-jitsu but are still possible. Striking of all kinds is not allowed, which makes the sport safer than other combat sports, especially striking ones, but BJJ is still a contact sport, and the head can suffer a hit or two.
Sweeps, takedowns, throws, or jerky movements on the ground are all opportunities for a head to clash with hard bones or the mat hard enough to get concussed.
Concussions are classified as TBI or traumatic brain injuries. Light-to-mild concussions, or even more severe ones, usually heal with time and leave no lasting damage.
The real issues arise with the development of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), which leads to dire and permanent consequences like decreased memory, changes in mood, and overall mental problems.
Luckily, CTE usually does not occur from a single incident but only after repeated head trauma, especially when the brain receives a blow before recovering from a previous concussion.
This means it’s important to recognize and address concussions as soon as they happen. Here are the common concussion symptoms:
- Sensitivity to light
- Difficulty balancing
- Brain fog
- Rapid changes in mood
- Difficulties concentrating
If you have a concussion, the best course of action is to rest from training and intense mental and physical work. The amount of rest time entirely depends on the severity of the concussion.
CTE is a serious condition, but luckily, we BJJ practitioners are not at high risk. Even if the occasional knock to the head is inevitable, the frequency and power are seldom enough to cause lasting damage. Boxers have always had to battle the plague of CTE, and the condition is also known as boxer’s dementia.
Athletes from other contact sports like football, rugby, and hockey are also at high risk. The likelihood is low for grapplers, but always keep it in mind because the studies of CTE in BJJ are few and inconclusive.
I am not worried about getting brain damage from strikes in BJJ, but what about the chokes we must often endure?
Does Getting Choked Out Cause Brain Damage?
The neck is one of the main targets of submissions, and often, the result of a successful choke if the opponent does not submit is to lose consciousness.
This is called getting choked out. But the technically correct term should be getting strangled because the loss of consciousness results from compressing the carotid arteries and, by extension, the blood and oxygen flow to the brain.
So, how does going to sleep due to strangulation affect the brain?
According to the studies, it is not bad. A well-executed blood choke will put a person to sleep in 8 to 15 seconds. The blood flow returns once the choke is released, and the person quickly awakens with little repercussion.
Loss of brain cells and permanent damage are possible from this condition, but only if the strangle is held for minutes at a time. The damage lasts around 3 minutes and becomes fatal around 5 minutes in.
This timeframe means it’s impossible to hold someone for long enough to cause brain damage on accident. It even means sloppy judges who are late to notice someone is choked out are not as complicit in attempted murder as some paint them to be.
As comforting as the thought that a 20–30-second choke is not particularly dangerous, we should always keep in mind this is referring to healthy people.
Being choked out may lead to decreased blood pressure and an irregular heartbeat for people predisposed to some conditions. We are on the topic of brain damage, but heart conditions are no joke either.
Getting choked out also poses a greater danger for people over 45 because of possible blood vessel plaques. By squeezing the carotid arteries, we are effectively closing them.
In healthy individuals, the blood flow immediately returns to normal once the pressure is gone. Still, plaque arteries may stick together and prevent the blood flow from normalizing even after the pressure is released.
How To Avoid Brain Damage From BJJ
Getting choked out looks relatively safe and without lasting consequences for most people. This is not to say it’s good for the brain, but it’s not as bad as it looks from the outside. The only study hinting at chokes influencing CTE is looking at MMA fighters, who also receive frequent blows to the head.
All other studies and a glance at people who have been training jiu-jitsu for decades show there are no cognitive impairments connected to the practice of jiu-jitsu.
Still, you would want to minimize the chance of receiving head damage. Аfter all this is one of the significant benefits of BJJ over striking martial arts- not getting hit in the head.
A study from 2019 concludes that self-reported concussions from BJJ were 25.2%. This means one in four practitioners has been hit in the head hard enough to receive a concussion (self-reported), even if a light one. As expected, beginners are more likely to experience concussions, as are females.
There are things everyone can do to minimize unfortunate head knocks in training.
- Be mindful of your training partners– Sparring is not competition, and there is no point in going all out in every roll. Spazzy, uncontrolled movements are what usually cause accidental blows to the head.
- Learn how to break fall– Knowing how to fall without hurting yourself is essential and will prevent many injuries, not just hits to the head.
- Improve neck strength– Neck strength and mobility are significant factors in the likelihood of receiving a concussion. This has been well-researched in a multitude of high-contact sports. The importance of neck strength in BJJ is even more significant because we constantly use it to keep posture, resist chokes, and post on it in attacks and transitions. Neck strength is a critical factor in injury prevention in jiu-jitsu.
- Use proper technique- No techniques in BJJ aim to intentionally hit the head, regardless of whether it’s a submission, a sweep, or a takedown, so if everything is executed with at least moderate precision, the chances of concussions drastically decrease.
If and when you eventually receive a hard hit on the head, monitor the appearance of symptoms like headache, dizziness, and nausea. If they occur, it’s time to rest from training until symptoms clear or visit the doctor if they are more severe.
One of the beautiful things about jiu-jitsu is we can engage in a combat sport and regularly spar with full power without too much risk.
Yes, orthopedic injuries are common, but BJJ usually does not cause brain damage. Chokes haven’t been proven to influence the development of serious conditions like CTE, and hits in the head are rare enough not to cause too much concern.
Still, there is always danger, so train smart, monitor yourself for concussion symptoms, and take the appropriate measures to avoid lasting brain damage.