A Guide to Elbows for the Martial Artist
Jacob Edwards-Bytom, director at one of the UK's leading martial arts equipment suppliers, Made4Fighters, provides his comprehensive guide to elbow protection for the modern martial artist.
Protection, Injury Prevention, and Rehabilitation:
Experience a lot of falls to the mat? Play an elbow intense sport like Muay Thai? You need to make sure you protect your elbows, regardless of age. If you’re a long time practitioner of Martial Arts, at one point you’ve likely experienced some sort of elbow pain.
Types of elbow pain can stem from a sprain, dislocation, or even recurring pain from Tennis or Golfer’s elbow. Joints are very important parts of your body and damage can lead to long term issues including arthritis or chronic pain.
Elbow Pads and Guards can be a simple measure to prevent damage, but it’s equally important to perform “elbow maintenance” to make sure that the joint stays in good shape.
Understanding Your Elbow: Inflammation and Injuries:
Your elbow joint includes a combination of tendons, ligaments, fluid, and cartilage. Joints serve as the junctions between bones and allow for the range of motion you experience when extending and moving certain parts of your body, namely your limbs.
Cartilage is the protective connective tissue between your bones which allows smooth movement, shock absorption, and prevents bones from rubbing together. Cartilage is actually thinner in your elbows than in your knees and hips, making them more prone to damage and inflammation. Repetitive movements and direct strikes from opponents can erode cartilage overtime.
Your body’s response to any type of injury is inflammation, which is a swelling of an area as your body sends white blood cells and other nutrients to repair the tissues in that area. Hard hits, strains, fractures, breaks, sprains, and dislocations are all triggers for inflammation. And, there is a link between severe injury and arthritis, so much so that there is a specific type of arthritis called Post-Traumatic Osteoarthritis (PTO) which is common among athletes.
Osteoarthritis is when cartilage degrades to the point where inflammation is regular around the joint and possibly bone spurs are forming. The term “arthritis” itself actually means joint (arthro) inflammation (itis). Sustained inflammation from a severe injury can lead to further joint damage and pain.There is evidence that certain proinflammatory byproducts released post-injury can erode cartilage.
As a result, it is important to make sure any injuries sustained are fully healed before jumping back into training. Re-injuring a healing joint increases the risk of long term damage. Repeat dislocations of the elbow, for example, can lead to direct cartilage damage each time they occur.
Elbow Pads vs Elbow Guards:
There’s no need to take a chance of damaging your elbows whether it be in sparring or at a competition. A broken elbow can mean many weeks of down time or even be career ending, so using some sort of elbow pad or guard to protect your elbows gives an extra layer between you and any direct strikes or falls.
Elbow pads and elbow guards are often used interchangeably to describe the combination of wrap or sleeve material with protective inserts. Traditionally, guards signaled a hard plastic insert covering for the joint, but now some softer foam pads are being termed as guards as well.
A lot of fighters avoid using elbow pads/guards because they often shift during movement. Getting tighter fitting pads can lead to a little discomfort if left on too long, but they’ll better stay in place. Softer foam is less protective, but will make the pads less likely to slide around. Foam will also make the guards less bulky and more comfortable as well.
Some brands, such as Fairtex and Mooto, include high impact padding which provides better shock absorption.
Preventative Measures & Maintenance:
In addition to using protective gear, there are many strengthening exercises and preventive measures you can do to reduce the incidence of elbow injury.
Strengthening & Stretching Exercise:
The whole arm (from the shoulders down to your wrists) are connected. Having one weak area forces other areas to compensate, over stressing them. Taking the time to work on your grip muscles and shoulders, as well as your forearm muscles can be very helpful in reducing the amount of strain you put on your elbows.
By building up muscles in your arm you more evenly distribute the force of your punches with the added benefit of extra power. Towel or rope grip exercises are perfect for building up both shoulder and forearm strength.
Stretching your wrist muscles can also help reduce the incidence of strain as well. A simple wrist exercise is holding your arm straight out in front of you, palm face up, and bend your fingers back towards you for 15 seconds or so. Repeat 2-3 times.
Sport Specific Measures:
With all sports, making sure not to over train and getting injuries checked out by a physiotherapist are great preventive measures for elbow injuries.
Muay Thai & MMA:
If you’re involved in “full rules” Muay Thai and MMA, being aware and attending to your elbows is a necessity. Sometimes when blocking kicks with your arms, one can land on your elbow and definitely cause it to hurt for the next few days. As mentioned previously, direct strikes can severely damage cartilage and repeated direct strikes to the same joint are a recipe for latent arthritis.
Using soft elbow pads during practice with a training partner can not only prevent damage from direct strikes, but it can also allow you perform strikes without seriously hurting them as well. Be sure to also avoid over committed feints.
Falls to the Mat in BJJ, Aikido, Judo, etc:
Falls to the mat are an unfortunately easy way to experience a dislocation or strain/sprain. Throwdowns in particular are very problematic because it’s hard to prepare yourself for the impact when you’re the one being tossed. By making sure to practice Breakfalls accurately and regularly, you can help prepare yourself for the inevitable toss to the mat. Training your body to respond differently than outstretching a limb can help prevent injury.
Dealing with Elbow/Joint Issues:
Tennis elbow (outside elbow/arm pain) and Golfer’s elbow (inside elbow/arm pain) can be both associated with punch-heavy Martial Arts.
If you’re already suffering from Tennis and Golfer's Elbow, there are different types of supplements which work to reduce the chronic inflammation which can be contributing to the pain. However, it is always important to check with your physician before adding any supplements to your diet.
One common supplement to take is the combination of turmeric with extra circumin. Circumin is the active ingredient in tumeric which makes it a great natural anti-inflammatory by inhibiting one molecule, NF-kappaB which controls the genes associated with inflammation in cytokines.
Cytokines are proteins produced to stimulate the inflammatory response of the body. Fish oils also limit inflammation as well by having a hand in reducing the amount of cytokines and prostaglandins produced. Omega 3’s serve to inactivate NF-Kappa B in cytokines like curcumin does and also block activation sites of enzymes that would stimulate prostaglandin production.
Prostaglandins are lipids that induce inflammation. If you do experience inflammation from an injury, remember that it is an essential process to help repair the tissue. You can reduce swelling and pain with ice, but using an anti-inflammatory right away like Ibuprofen can impact the process. However, if you are experiencing chronic and steady inflammation, it can be detrimental to the body. At this point, reducing inflammation then can become beneficial for maintaining a healthier homeostasis.
Besides anti-inflammatory supplements, you can also use the same combination of whole arm exercises and stretching to rebuild tendon strength. Strengthening arm flexor muscles is extremely effective in alleviating symptoms of Golfer’s elbow, while strengthening your wrist extensor muscles is most beneficial for Tennis Elbow.