Quick, name a contact sport where you don’t have any risk of injury. Stumped? Ok, what about a non-contact sport with no chance of injury?
While BJJ is not unique in its risks, the BJJ community does anecdotally seem to be more willing to espouse training while injured, unproven medical treatments, and has a reluctance to seek professional medical opinion.
The problem with anecdotes is that everyone has one.
- Your training buddy had a rib injury like yours? Well he was back on the mat in a week, so that’s what you should do.
- You didn’t hear your knee pop? Oh, then its fine. Just ice it.
Endless variations on this theme exist and some of the time they offer good advice. Icing a hurt joint is probably not a bad call. Taking a week off for a rib injury is a pretty safe minimum. But the problem is that we are too willing to let our bodies fall apart and not seek professional medical opinions.
Ok – but what if a doctor who trains at your gym told you that your ankle/knee/elbow/shoulder/neck/hip/back/eye/etc was fine and that you just needed to give it some time?
First – ask yourself what type of doctor is offering your advice. The resident ophthalmologist is better able to give you feedback about detached retina concerns than wrist pain. However – even if the doctor is diagnosing something within their field – approach the diagnosis with skepticism. Some fields of medicine rely on advanced imaging techniques that simply aren’t available on the side of the mat. Also, consider that they might be telling you what they think you want to hear. Or, more likely, they are telling you what they want to believe. No one wants to tell their training partner and friend that they may have torn their ACL.
To tell someone this is to admit to yourself that the game we play is dangerous – and that we are mortal. This type of mortality salience is not a pleasant sensation and I suspect that we unconsciously avoid this type of thinking when we are able.
Alright, so you heard something pop during a submission. Or, you didn’t hear something pop but now your joint is inflamed and sore. Or feels strange. Or looks odd. Or whatever. What should you do?
There is certainly something to be said for giving injuries time. Many injuries in jiu-jitsu are not particularly serious. Minor sprains happen all the time and you can recover from them given a little time, ice, and maybe a supportive brace. But more serious injuries really need a doctor’s scrutiny. The trick is figuring out which doctor (witch doctors for example are probably not the right choice) you need to see.
Some injuries like eye injuries or tooth injuries are pretty obvious – see a dentist or an eye doctor contrarespectively. But what do you do about the infamous heel-hook-that-you-almost-escaped injury? Or a shoulder injury from an americana or kimura?
Whether or not you have insurance a serious knee or shoulder injury is time consuming and expensive. But you can save yourself unnecessary time and expense by going to the correct doctor first. Your GP (general practitioner) might be able to diagnose severe problems like a completely torn ACL or MCL, but for minor issues they probably will end up referring you on to a specialist. If your insurance permits it, cut out the middle man and seek out the specialist first.
However, it is important to note that the most frequent prescription given by orthopedists – anecdotally – is a couple months of physical therapy. Does this mean you can skip the orthopedist and go straight to PT? Maybe. Physical therapists lack the imaging tools available to orthopedists, but tend to have a pretty good sense of how quickly you should see progress from treatment. If you aren’t showing progress after that time then a trip to the orthopedist is probably the next step.
Whether you seek out an orthopedist or a physical therapist it helps to find one that is used to working with athletes, and ideally who has some idea of what BJJ entails. Find a video that shows what you were doing when you got injured if possible.
Certain “alternative medicines” are better alternatives than others. Perhaps at another time I’ll address these alternatives, but for now I’d simply say to research the treatments and use common sense.
Joint injuries are more likely to heal if they are addressed early. You are less likely to exacerbate an existing injury if you better understand the nature of the injury. While we in the jiu-jitsu community have lots of experience getting hurt, we aren’t necessarily the best people to talk to about getting better. Our love of spending time on the mat supersedes our common sense – and the outcome occasionally is a long lasting injury. If you get hurt, do yourself a favor and go to a doctor. Don’t rely on the casual advice of your peers, or even the ‘professional advice’ of the resident doctor.
I’d love to offer guidelines on which injuries can be safely treated using the traditional jiu-jitsu method (by ignoring them), which just need time off the mat, and which need professional treatment…but I can’t because that is not something I’ve been trained to do.
Having said that, if I were to have:
- knee pain and swelling following a kneebar/heel hook/or figure four footlock
- wrist pain that persisted for more than 4 or 5 days following a submission
- shoulder pain, swelling, or reduced range of motion for more than 4 or 5 days following a submission
- the visual sensation of a curtain descending in one of my eyes
I would strongly consider going to a doctor.
And maybe see if I couldn’t get a couple of rolls in before they told me I’d have to take some time off…