Spinal Injuries in MMA & Other Contact Sports

Spinal Injuries: Part 1

For information purposes only. Exercise at your own risk. Always consult a doctor if you sustain an injury

Neck (Cervical Spine) Injuries 

In this 3 part blog post, we will be taking a look at the most common spinal injuries that can arise from both MMA training and competition. Due to the structure of the spine and the nature of spinal injuries we shall divide the spine into its three natural anatomical areas; the neck (cervical spine), the mid back (thoracic spine) and the lower back (lumbar spine). 

mma injury



The Neck 

Function The function of the neck or cervical spine is to support the head, house and protect the spinal cord and allow a wide range of head movement (e.g., forward and backward movement bending side to side and rotation.) 

Anatomy 
Vertebrae and Discs 

The cervical spine is made up of seven individual vertebrae stacked on top of each other to form the top section of the vertebral column. In between each one of the vertebrae is a gel-like disc (intervertebral disc) which allows movement, helps to absorb shock, distributes stress, and keeps the spine in correct alignment. As you age your discs slowly degenerate and cause the vertebrae to get closer together. The spine, like any other articulations in the body (elbow, knee, shoulder etc) also has joints and these are known as zygoapophyseal joints (or facet joints for short!). Each vertebra has two pairs of facet joints that link the vertebrae together with the one above and below. The facet joints are located at the rear (posterior) of the spinal column. It is the facet joints that help to make the spine flexible. Muscles, Tendons and Ligaments 


Surrounding the bones and discs are a complex system of ligaments, tendons, and muscles which help to support and stabilize the cervical spine. Ligaments are inelastic bands of fibres that prevent excessive spinal movement that could result in serious injury. Tendons attach the muscles to the bones and the muscles control movement as well as providing stability and balance. 

Central and peripheral nervous system

The movement of the muscles is controlled by nerve impulses that originate in the brain and are sent via the spinal cord to the nerves of the body. The nervous system itself is split into two major regions: the central nervous system (CNS) and the peripheral nervous system (PNS).

The CNS consists of the brain and spinal cord whilst the PNS consists of the nerve roots and all nerves beyond the central spinal cord. The CNS and PNS are responsible for all movement in the body. As the spinal cord is a major part of the CNS and the vertebral column houses and protects the spinal cord the spine is an area you want to avoid injuring at all costs! 


Neck Injuries 


There are a number of ways to develop neck pain (or cervicalgia) but in the case of most MMA practitioners we can rule out degeneration with age as by the time this occurs your training should not be in the combative arena! If you are a more senior practitioner however and you have been suffering with long standing neck pain, degeneration of the neck joints (or spondylosis) may be the culprit and advice from your GP or Chartered Physiotherapist is essential if you wish to continue to train. 
Cervicalgia as with all areas of the spine may be Acute (recent) or Chronic (longstanding). Acute injuries of the neck will tend to be soft tissue injuries (STI) which covers basically everything that isn’t bone. Fractures of the cervical spine do occur but thankfully are rarer than most people would think in MMA

Acute Injuries 
The most common ways to incur acute neck injuries in MMA will be from head strikes, landing during throws and takedowns, neck “cranks” and of course chokes. Strikes to the head are also responsible for a large number other problems such as facial fractures, lacerations, abrasions, haematomas and loss of consciousness (LOC). These other injuries are beyond the scope of this article however and will be covered at a later date when we examine head injuries in MMA. The same is true for chokes as only the effect on the neck will be discussed and the effect of LOC will be left for another time. 

The most common type of acute injury occurring in the neck in the general population tends to be whiplash. In whiplash the head is literally whipped in one direction and then another, rapidly overstretching and compressing the opposing soft tissues of the neck. This traumatises the neck causing pain, swelling, stiffness and spasm in the neck muscles and possibly headaches and nausea (if you’ve ever been in a car crash you’ll know what I mean!).

Similar injuries can occur with strikes to the head (especially a high Thai round kick to the side of the neck or head) or from throws (suplex onto the back of the neck). Trauma from striking can damage muscles, tendons and ligaments. Trauma to ligaments tends to cause persistent problems and will nearly always require physiotherapy intervention to recover full pain free range of movement.

Trauma may also occur with a choke but this is usually from compression of one of the bones of the forearm (Radius) against the soft tissues of the neck. This not only reduces the flow of blood to the brain by compressing the Carotid artery but may also cause bruising (haematoma) of the surrounding soft tissues by rupturing smaller blood vessels. The bruising from a choke (which is technically a “strangle”, as a “choke” limits the intake of air whilst strangulation limits flow of blood) is short lived and fairly harmless but just looks bad! The major damage caused by a choke is actually internal to the brain and can neither be seen nor treated once the choke has occurred! So tapping out before unconsciousness arrives is usually a good idea! 

neck massage


If in the days following a neck injury you have weakness, pins and needles, numbness or burning in one or both arms you need to seek advice and assessment from a Chartered Physiotherapist ASAP. If any limb becomes paralysed or you suffer any of the above symptoms immediately following a neck injury during training or competition then get yourself to A&E; ASAP and get checked out for disc or nerve damage. Any alteration in sensation or function following a neck injury suggests nerve involvement and although the spine is very strong, its internal structures are very delicate and extremely important for normal function.

There’s a very good reason why a number of neck cranks and elbow strikes to the spine are outlawed in a lot of MMA promotions! Don’t be alarmed at A&E; if they’re not concerned about X-raying your neck following an injury, as true dislocations or fractures of the vertebrae are very rare and usually occur in sports like motocross or show jumping (remember Christopher Reeves?). More likely to occur however is the chipping of bone or compression (or wedge) fractures of the cervical spine and possible disc protrusion but these usually take some force, like being dropped on your head from a great height….more WWE than UFC! 

Bob Sapp
Bob Sapp Slamming Big Nog



With the exception of bruising all neck injuries that persist beyond 24 hours should be checked out by a Chartered Physiotherapist to evaluate the injury and advise on subsequent treatment, rehabilitation and strengthening. 

Chronic 
Neck pain that has been around for more than a few weeks or has occurred without any injury (insidious onset) will often be biomechanical in origin. This means postural i.e. the way you sit, stand and move about. It has been estimated that 85% of neck and back pain is from postural dysfunction and only 15% of neck and back pain is from traumatic injuries. This figure may be slightly different in MMA but as most practitioners of MMA are amateur and not pros then they have to work for a living at something else during the day. 40 hours at a desk, sitting in a van or working over a bench will give you a neck problem in no time at all. An underlying neck problem like this will soon start to impact on your training if not remedied. Again any neck pain that persists, whatever the cause should be assessed and treated. You’ll pick enough injuries up training MMA without getting anymore from work! 

Assessment 
If you have suffered a neck injury or have neck pain or stiffness then see a Chartered Physiotherapist and get the problem assessed. When dealing with neck injuries avoid the advice of mates down the pub or even in the dojo (even if they do mean well!). The neck is as about as important as it gets when we are looking at the musculoskeletal system so get it treated properly 1st time around. Assessing the problem correctly is paramount to successful treatment. Remember that neck pain is a symptom and not actually a diagnosis! 

Treatment 
As with all uncomplicated STIs, PRICE(MM) is the favoured approach. The Protection, Rest, Ice are fine but Compression may not be the best idea around the neck for obvious reasons! The Elevation occurs naturally because of the location of the neck anyway. Medications and Modalities (physical treatments) should be sought from your GP or Chartered Physiotherapist if the pain persists more than a few days. 


If pain from the injury persists beyond 24 hours it’s a good idea to start to increase the movement in that area gently. In a national study of people suffering from whiplash injuries, those who began gentle range of movement exercises a few days after injury made a better recovery than those that didn’t. 

Most treatment plans for the neck will include manual therapy (manipulation and mobilisation), exercises (gentle bending and rotation of the neck) and modalities such as electrotherapy (ultrasound) or acupuncture (for pain and inflammation). All these treatments however are injury specific, so again assessment is very important. 



Rehabilitation of Neck Injuries

 
As always one of the major goals of rehabilitation is to maintain your cadiovascular fitness levels, so for instance when you suffer a neck injury try avoiding the continued impact of roadwork, try aqua jogging with a flotation belt (running upright in a swimming pool without your feet touching the bottom of the pool). As a word or warning avoid swimming though, as the extended position of the cervical spine tends to aggravate neck problems.

You, your coach/trainer and your physio should work together at devising alternative training programmes as soon as possible particularly if you are a competitive fighter. In addition to cardiovascular fitness, you may use the injury period as an opportunity to strengthen weaker areas whether they be physical, mental, technical or tactical.

Your physical rehab plan should include exercises to restore normal strength using progressive resistance exercises and then continue to further develop strength in that area to protect it from possible future injury. In addition in the later stages rehab you should include some combat-specific drills (with an emphasis on proper technique). Both boxers and wrestlers usually have tremendous neck development. It enables boxers to take a punch and wrestlers to bridge their bodyweight without additional support from the arms to avoid being pinned.

Performing a wrestler’s bridge can be a great exercise for developing strength in the neck but it can also be a great way to injure the neck! This is a technically and physically demanding exercise and should only be attempted under close professional supervision.

neck injury mma

Some training facilities will use a head harness with an attachment for free weights to work the neck. The main problem with this is it relies on moving the weight against gravity so the resistance is variable through the exercise depending on your position (you usually have to lie down or bend over to exercise). This also means that if you injure your neck whilst training you still have a weight hanging off your head whilst in an awkward position!

Strength however can be built up in the neck using isometric exercises for resistance. It’s usually easier to use either your hand against your head as resistance or a towel held in both hands, or even a soft ball against a wall. As an example; 1) place your palm of your right hand against your forehead, 2) without allowing your hand to move push your forehead against your hand, 3) continue for 10 seconds remembering to breath throughout, 3) repeat for a few sets and you’ll soon feel the difference in your neck muscles. If at anytime you feel any discomfort just stop pushing so there is no risk of additional injury during your rehabilitation.

This exercise can be repeated in different directions and angles around the head with either one hand as resistance or a towel held between both hands either side of the head with the head pushing into the middle of the towel. As also mentioned that instead of using your hand a ball (a cheap kid’s football is ideal) can be placed against a wall and the forehead pushes into the ball creating resistance with some give in it for comfort and safety. 

It must also be appreciated that the power, speed and angles which occur during competition may far exceed the criteria for successful completion of rehabilitation exercise. To be ready for competition you must perform over and above what you are required to do in competition. 

Return to Training/Competition 
Depending on the severity of the injury, it may take several months of physical therapy for you return to full training or competition. The differing types of neck injury makes for a wide range of recovery and rehab times. Muscular injuries may be days to weeks whilst ligament injuries often take months to rehabilitate and a fracture or disc injury may prevent a return to full MMA competition permanently even after many months of rehabilitation.

As always two key factors exists for return to full training/competition; firstly the risk of re-injury and secondly the ability to fight/perform at a satisfactory level. These factors are often intertwined. When there is a risk of re-injury, the potential for further or permanent damage must also be considered and in the neck permanent damage can have a huge impact on the rest of your life. The criteria for return to competition after a neck injury include restoration of normal strength, flexibility and stability. With biomechanical problems it is important to identify the specific activity that caused the initial injury so that activity can be avoided or training or postures modified. Avoidance steps may include changing technique, training habits, and equipment, and modifying posture and ergonomic practices at home and at work as well as during training. 

This is just a brief outline of the neck injuries you may incur during MMA training and competition and a rough guide to treatment and rehabilitation principles. If you have any specific neck or spinal problems you will need to seek first hand advice, assessment and treatment from an experienced sports injuries Chartered Physiotherapist. 

Check out parts 2 & 3 in this series: Mid Back (Thoracic Spine) and Rib Injuries & Lower Back (Lumbar Spine) Injuries 

This article is for the purpose of information only and it is not intended to diagnose or treat medical conditions and is not considered to be a substitute for individual medical assessment and advice.

iron neck

Click here to read about the Iron Neck Machine





Spinal Injuries: Part 2

For information purposes only. Exercise at your own risk. Always consult a doctor if you sustain an injury



In this series of 3 articles we will be taking a look at the most common spinal injuries that can arise from both MMA training and competition. Due to the structure of the spine and the nature of spinal injuries we shall divide the spine into its three natural anatomical areas; the neck (cervical spine), the mid back (thoracic spine) and the lower back (lumbar spine). 

The Mid Back & Injuries



Function 
The function of the mid back or thoracic spine is to support the trunk, form the rear of the rib cage, create attachments for the trunk muscles for movement and respiration (breathing) and protect the spinal cord. Due to the fact that the ribs attach to the thoracic spine movement in this region is limited to some degree. 

neck



Anatomy 
Vertebrae, Ribcage and Discs 
The thoracic spine is made up of twelve mid-sized vertebrae stacked on top of each other to form the midsection of the vertebral column (between the cervical and lumbar spines). Attached to each of the twelve thoracic vertebrae on each side is a rib making twelve matching pairs (Contrary to popular belief you don’t have a spare one!). The ribs curve from the spine towards the front of the body and join at the breast bone (sternum) at the front of the rib cage.

The ribs form a joint with the thoracic vertebrae and have cartilage at the sternal end to allow movement during breathing. The purpose of the ribs is to form a protective framework for the lungs, heart and other vital organs. Attaching to the top of the sternum on the left and right and running to each shoulder are the collar bones (clavicles). The clavicles form a joint with the shoulder blades (scapulae) on each side forming the only bony connection between the trunk and the upper limbs (arms). In between each one of the vertebra is a wedge shaped gel-like disc (intervertebral disc) which allow movement, help to absorb shock, distribute stress, and help keep the thoracic spine in correct alignment.

The discs have a gel like interior with a fibrous outer coating which allows them to deform under stress and absorb huge amounts of force through daily life. The thoracic spine, like the cervical spine also has facet joints that link the vertebrae together with the one above and below. In the thoracic spine the facet joints are more suited to rotation than bending forward or backwards. Muscles, Tendons and Ligaments 


Surrounding the bones and discs are a complex system of ligaments, tendons, and muscles which help to support and stabilize the thoracic spine. Ligaments are inelastic bands of fibres that prevent excessive spinal movement that could result in serious injury. Tendons attach the muscles to the bones and the muscles control movement as well as providing stability and balance. Central and peripheral nervous system

The movement of the muscles is controlled by nerve impulses that originate in the brain and are sent via the spinal cord to the nerves of the body. The spinal cord is situated in the centre of the spine or spinal column is a vertical channel called the spinal canal. The bones that create the spinal canal serve as protection to prevent injury to the cord itself.

Through spaces between each vertebra small nerve roots branch off from the spinal cord and extend out into the entire body. The nervous system itself is split into two major regions: the central nervous system (CNS) and the peripheral nervous system (PNS). The CNS consists of the brain and spinal cord whilst the PNS consists of the nerve roots and all nerves beyond the central spinal cord. The CNS and PNS are responsible for all movement in the body. As the spinal cord is a major part of the CNS and the vertebral column houses and protects the spinal cord the spine is an area you want to avoid injuring at all costs! 


Injuries The majority of problems occurring in the thoracic region in MMA practitioners will be from impact. There are a number of congenital (born with) disorders of this area that can show up later in life but they are beyond the scope of this article. Thoracic spine pain as with all areas of the spine may be Acute (recent) or Chronic (longstanding). Acute injuries of the mid back will tend to be soft tissue injuries (STI) which covers basically everything that isn’t bone. Due to the size and density of vertebrae fractures of the Thoracic spine are usually wedge or compression fractures that occur with falls from a great height. 

Acute Injuries 
The most common ways to incur an acute STI of the thoracic region in MMA will be from excessive rotation under stress or from direct impact. Direct impact to the thorax usually occurs in MMA whilst on the ground though it can occur also in the clinch in standing or from stand up strike range and also as a result of a throw. Generally the further away (kicking range) you are when you strike your opponent in the ribs the greater the potential force you can generate is but the closer in you are (guard position) the less force you can generate but the frequency with which you can land a clean strike is much higher. Injuring the ribs or intercostals muscles (“between ribs” muscles) will affect your opponent’s ability to breathe deeply by causing pain on movement of the rib cage.

The harder you breathe the greater the movement of the rib cage, the more trauma of the ribs and intercostals there is the less your opponent will want to deep breath. Without sufficient air going into the lungs he (or she) will fatigue….and as you know “Fatigue makes a coward out of anyone!” If you yourself receive an injury in this area don’t hold your side whilst fighting as your opponent will be relentless in their pursuit of your pain! As the old boxing adage goes ”Kill the body and the head will die!” If an injury occurs in training, stop immediately and get it checked out by your GP and/or Chartered Physiotherapist.

If it occurs in competition and you’re struggling it’s better to throw in the towel and return to competition within a month or so than have your ribs broken even further and risk puncturing a lung and ending your fight career altogether. On impact, ribs will give and spring back but a direct blow with enough force or repeated blows to that area may break (fracture) a rib but it will usually remain intact. Repeated blows to a fractured rib however may cause a flail segment (loose piece of broken rib) to occur and puncture a lung causing a pneumothorax collapsing that lung. Damage to the ribs may also occur when landing badly from a throw. 

mma



STIs to this area will usually occur whilst rotating during a throw or in the clinch and is usually uncomplicated and limited to one specific area. With the adrenalin of competition or intense training these injuries may not be felt until later on or even the next day. As with the Lumbar spine this sort of injury is more likely to occur as you fatigue as a fight progresses or at the end of a grueling training session. That’s why when performing any strenuous movements that rely on the back, technique is always of paramount importance. 

Another common area for STIs in the thoracic region is the mid back between the spine and inner side of the shoulder blades (medial border of the scapula). Here the deep stabilising muscles of the scapula are often injured or become over stressed as a result of poor biomechanics of the shoulder or poor neck postures. As a huge majority of neck pain is posture related problems in this area are extremely common.

As always any back pain is not there to be trained through, pain is your body trying to tell you something and it’s usually something you should listen to! If in the days following a mid or upper back injury you have referred pain, pins and needles, numbness or burning to another site on your body then you need to seek advice and assessment from a Chartered Physiotherapist ASAP. If you suffer any of the above symptoms immediately following a mid or upper back injury during training or competition you need to stop and seek appropriate advice. Due of the location these problems they are very rarely serious but are very often persistent and usually require some encouragement (physiotherapy) to get rid of. 

Chronic 
As with the neck and low back any mid or upper back pain that has been around for more than a few weeks or has occurred without any injury (insidious onset) will often be biomechanical in origin.

This means postural i.e. the way you sit, stand and move about. As stated previously, in MMA most practitioners are amateur and not pros so they have to work for a living at something else during the day. I’ve said this before but I’ll say it again because it’s that important, 40 hours at a desk, sitting in a van or working over a bench will give you a back problem in no time at all. Underlying mid or upper back pain like this may soon start to impact on your training if not remedied, although some may actually go away when training only to return again at rest. If that is the case then the problem will most usually be postural. Again, any mid or upper back pain that persists, whatever the cause should be assessed and treated. 


Treatment of Mid Back Injuries



Assessment

Daniel Cormier Slamon Josh Barnett

 
If you have suffered a mid or upper back pain then see a Chartered Physiotherapist and get the problem assessed. I’ve said this before as well but I’ll keep on repeating it until everyone is clear on the matter, when dealing with any back pain avoid the advice of mates down the pub or even in the dojo (even if they do mean well!). It’s important you look after it correctly and get it treated properly 1st time around. Assessing the problem correctly is paramount to successful treatment. Remember that the same as elsewhere in the body pain is a symptom and not actually a diagnosis! 

Treatment 
As with all uncomplicated STIs, PRICE(MM) is the favoured approach. The Protection, Rest, Ice, Compression are fine although Elevation is not really practical. Medications and Modalities (physical treatments) should be sought from your GP or Chartered Physiotherapist if the pain persists more than a few days. 

If pain from the injury persists beyond 24 hours it’s a good idea to start to increase the movement in that area gently. This can be done with a few, gentle range of movement exercises. 

1) Lie on your back with your knees bent and your feet flat on the floor. Gently rock your knees from side to side. Increase your range of movement until the side of your right leg reaches the floor. Repeat this movement to the left. Continue to repeat this movement for ten repetitions each side. Try to keep your head and shoulders flat on the floor and remember to breathe gently throughout the exercise. 

2) Lie on your back with your knees bent and your feet flat on the floor. Take hold of your knees in your hands and slowly pull them up towards your chest. Hold them to your chest for a count of five seconds then slowly return them to their starting position. Continue to repeat this movement for ten repetitions. Try to keep your head and shoulders flat on the floor and remember to breathe gently throughout the exercise. 

3) Lie flat on your front with your hands palm down on the floor underneath your shoulders. Slowly straighten your arms so your head and shoulders rise up from the floor. Keep your low back relaxed so it begins to arch backwards as you straighten your arms and rise up. Keep the back relaxed (it’s not a press up) and remember to breathe gently throughout the exercise. Slowly lower yourself down and return to lying face down on the floor. Continue to repeat this movement for ten repetitions. 

For fractured ribs take the immediate advice of your GP or Chartered Physiotherapist regarding returning to training but other than rest and strapping there is very little that can actually be done. 

Most treatment plans for the back will include manual therapy (manipulation and mobilisation), exercises (gentle bending and rotation of the neck and back) and modalities such as electrotherapy (ultrasound) or acupuncture (for pain and inflammation). All these treatments however are injury specific, so again assessment is very important. 


Rehabilitation 
With the exception of rib or intercostal injuries the injuries in the thoracic region don’t tend to impact too much on training. The problem is though they do impact on deep breathing and so they can limit cardiovascular (CV) training. As a result your level of CV training may need to be reduced as will your level of physical contact although some light training may be beneficial. As always each case is individual so take the advice of your GP and Chartered Physiotherapist. With any injury, you, your coach/trainer and your physio should work together at devising alternative training programmes as soon as possible particularly if you are a competitive fighter. If your CV training is effected you may use the injury period as an opportunity to strengthen weaker areas whether they be physical, mental, technical or tactical. Your physical rehab plan should include exercises to restore normal strength and full range of movement using progressive resistance exercises and stretching then continue to further develop strength in that area to protect it from possible future injury. In addition in the later stages rehab you should include some combat-specific drills (with an emphasis on proper technique). It must also be appreciated that the power, speed and angles which occur during competition may far exceed the criteria for successful completion of rehabilitation exercise. To be ready for competition you must perform over and above what you are required to do in competition. 

Return to Training/Competition 
If you have incurred a rib fracture or injury, it may take several months of physical therapy for you return to full training or competition. Muscular injuries may be days to weeks whilst rib or joint injuries often take months to rehabilitate before you make a return to full MMA training/competition. As always two key factors exists for return to full training/competition; firstly the risk of re-injury and secondly the ability to fight/perform at a satisfactory level.

These factors are often intertwined. When there is a risk of re-injury, the potential for further or permanent damage must also be considered. The criteria for return to competition after a thoracic or rib injury include restoration of normal strength, flexibility and mobility of the ribs when deep breathing. With postural or biomechanical problems it is important to identify the specific activity or posture that caused the initial injury so that activity or posture can be avoided or modified. Avoidance steps may include changing technique, training habits, and equipment, and modifying posture and ergonomic practices at home and at work as well as during training. 

This is just a brief outline of the mid, upper back and rib injuries you may incur during MMA training and competition and a rough guide to treatment and rehabilitation principles. If you have any specific problems in this area you will need to seek first hand advice, assessment and treatment from an experienced sports injuries Chartered Physiotherapist. 

Check out parts 1 & 3 in this series: Neck (Cervical Spine) Injuries & Lower Back (Lumbar Spine) Injuries 

This article is for the purpose of information only and it is not intended to diagnose or treat medical conditions and is not considered to be a substitute for individual medical assessment and advice. 




Part 3- Lower Back (Lumbar Spine) Injuries 




In this series of 3 articles we will be taking a look at the most common spinal injuries that can arise from both MMA training and competition. Due to the structure of the spine and the nature of spinal injuries we shall divide the spine into its three natural anatomical areas; the neck (cervical spine), the mid back (thoracic spine) and the lower back (lumbar spine). 


The Lower Back 

Function 
The function of the lower back or lumbar spine is to stabilise and support the trunk and spine, house and protect the spinal cord and allow a wide range of trunk movement (e.g., forward and backward movement and bending side to side with some rotation.) 

Anatomy 
Vertebrae and Discs 

The lumbar spine is made up of five large individual vertebrae stacked on top of each other to form the base of the mobile vertebral column (the Sacrum is below the Lumbar spine but is fused so relatively immobile). In between each one of the vertebra is a large gel-like disc (intervertebral disc) which allow movement, help to absorb shock, distribute stress, and keep the lumbar spine in correct alignment. The discs have a gel like interior with a fibrous outer coating which allows them to deform under stress and absorb huge amounts of force through daily life. As you age the discs slowly degenerate and cause the vertebrae to get closer together causing “wear and tear” in the low back.

The Lumbar spine, like the rest of the spine has two pairs of facet joints that link the vertebrae together with the one above and below. The facet joints are located at the rear (posterior) of the spinal column. It is the facet joints that help to make the spine flexible. Muscles, Tendons and Ligaments Surrounding the bones and discs are a complex system of ligaments, tendons, and muscles which help to support and stabilize the lumbar spine. Ligaments are inelastic bands of fibres that prevent excessive spinal movement that could result in serious injury. Tendons attach the muscles to the bones and the muscles control movement as well as providing stability and balance.

Central and peripheral nervous system The movement of the muscles is controlled by nerve impulses that originate in the brain and are sent via the spinal cord to the nerves of the body. The spinal cord is situated in the centre of the spine or spinal column is a vertical channel called the spinal canal. The bones that create the spinal canal serve as protection to prevent injury to the cord itself. Through spaces between each vertebra small nerve roots branch off from the spinal cord and extend out into the entire body. The nervous system itself is split into two major regions: the central nervous system (CNS) and the peripheral nervous system (PNS). The CNS consists of the brain and spinal cord whilst the PNS consists of the nerve roots and all nerves beyond the central spinal cord. The CNS and PNS are responsible for all movement in the body. As the spinal cord is a major part of the CNS and the vertebral column houses and protects the spinal cord the spine is an area you want to avoid injuring at all costs! 


Injuries 
There are a number of ways to develop low back pain (LBP) but in the case of most MMA practitioners we can rule out degeneration with age as by the time this occurs your training should not be in the combative arena! If you are a more senior practitioner however and you have been suffering with long standing LBP, degeneration of the lumbar spine joints may be the culprit and advice from your GP or Chartered Physiotherapist is essential if you wish to continue to train. 
LBP as with all areas of the spine may be Acute (recent) or Chronic (longstanding). Acute injuries of the lower back will tend to be soft tissue injuries (STI) which covers basically everything that isn’t bone.

Due to the size and density of Lumbar vertebrae fractures of the Lumbar spine are usually reserved only for falls from a great height and car crashes. Although Lumbar fractures have been reported in pro wrestling this may be theorised as being a side effect of long term steroid usage, which is know to cause osteoporosis (thinning of the bones) rather than purely a result of over zealous grappling! 


Acute Injuries 
The most common ways to incur acute LBP in MMA will be from spinal flexion (bending forward), lateral flexion (side bending) and/or rotation. The main cause of these movements will be grappling in standing, throws and takedowns. In the case of the Lumbar spine it may even be more likely the person executing the throw or takedown is the one more likely to become injured! Other than the impact and possible superficial bruising from being thrown the likelihood of receiving a serious low back injury from being thrown is fairly low. This all comes about because of the biomechanics of a throw.

Essentially when taking an opponent down to the mat you have to control his mass (weight) and move his centre of gravity outside his base of support. If this happens he will fall down…simple.

However if he decides he is going to do this back to you, then you have a problem on your hands. One of the key ways to control someone’s bodyweight is via rotation as in a hip throw or “whizzer”. If however your opponent can resist your force then the physiological stress you place on the structures of your lower back may exceed their natural strength and injury will occur. This sort of injury is more likely to occur as you fatigue as a fight progresses or at the end of a gruelling training session. That’s why when performing any strenuous movements that rely on rotation of the back, technique is of paramount importance. 

The most common form of acute LBP injury occurring in the general population tends to be actually from poor posture and not trauma. It has been estimated that 85% of LBP is from postural dysfunction and only 15% of LBP is from actual trauma. Of the 15% suffering acute LBP from trauma most of those will have occurred from the physiological stress of excessive force on the soft tissues during flexion, lateral flexion and/or rotation. 

As with all injuries LBP is not there to be trained through, pain is your body trying to tell you something and it’s usually something you should listen to! LBP usually takes one of two general forms; the uncomplicated type with pain localised to one area and LBP that also has a component of referred symptoms into the buttocks or down into one or both of the legs. These referred symptoms may take the form of pain, pins and needles, numbness, weakness or altered sensations in various distributions in the legs. 

If in the days following a back injury you have weakness, pins and needles, numbness or burning in one or both arms you need to seek advice and assessment from a Chartered Physiotherapist ASAP. If you suffer any of the above symptoms immediately following a lower back injury during training or competition or your leg(s) becomes paralysed, or there is an alteration in your bowel or bladder function, or if there is any pins and needles on your upper inner thighs then get yourself to A&E; ASAP and get checked out for disc or nerve damage.

Any alteration in sensation or function following a lower back injury suggests nerve involvement and although the Lumbar spine is very strong, its internal structures are very delicate and extremely important for normal function. Don’t be alarmed at A&E; if they’re not concerned about X-raying your back following an injury as true disc protrusions (slipped discs) are actually much rarer than people believe. The Drs in A&E; will be more concerned with what is termed your “clinical presentation” (signs and symptoms) than giving you an X-ray or MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging) scan. If they are concerned about your clinical presentation then they will scan you just to confirm the severity of the problem. 

LBP with referred or radiating pain is known clinically as Lumbar Radiculopathy and is commonly known as “Sciatica” as it is often the Sciatic nerve that is involved. Radiculopathy occurs in specific patterns or distributions known as dermatomes. Each dermatome covers a specific area of the lower limbs (legs) and is innervated by a specific lumbar nerve and the leg pain is caused by compression of that nerve root. The diagnosis of leg and back pain starts with a detailed history of the injury and clinical examination. This compression on the nerve will usually be from a protrusion of an intervertabral disc.

It is a popular misconception that you can have a “slipped disc” and that it can “pop” in and out! Due to the structure of the disc itself it can become damage by force and may bulge causing a protrusion of the disc or even extrusion of disc material into the spinal canal or press onto the nerve roots. This will usually be termed a herniated disc, ruptured disc or prolapsed disc. This protrusion may be reduced and the pressure relieved from the surrounding nerves with physiotherapy but it is not “popped” back into place. In most cases Lumbar Radiculopathy will respond to physiotherapy but in some extreme cases surgical intervention may be the only option. Remember however that due to the delicate structures of the spine and the severity of possible side effects, spinal surgery should only ever be an option when all other treatment avenues have been exhausted! 

In general, with the exception of bruising all low back injuries that persist beyond 24 hours should be checked out by a Chartered Physiotherapist to evaluate the severity of the injury and advise on subsequent treatment, rehabilitation and strengthening. 

Chronic 
As with the neck any LBP that has been around for more than a few weeks or has occurred without any injury (insidious onset) will often be biomechanical in origin. This means postural i.e. the way you sit, stand and move about. As stated previously, in MMA most practitioners are amateur and not pros so they have to work for a living at something else during the day. 40 hours at a desk, sitting in a van or working over a bench will give you a back problem in no time at all. Underlying LBP like this may soon start to impact on your training if not remedied, although some may actually go away when training only to return again at rest. If that is the case then the problem will most usually be postural. Again any LBP that persists, whatever the cause should be assessed and treated. 



Treatment of Lower Back Injuries



Assessment 
If you have suffered a low back injury or have LBP or stiffness then see a Chartered Physiotherapist and get the problem assessed. As always when dealing with LBP avoid the advice of mates down the pub or even in the dojo (even if they do mean well!). They can replace hips and knees but they won’t be replacing your back so it’s important you look after it correctly and get it treated properly 1st time around. Assessing the problem correctly is paramount to successful treatment. Remember that the same as elsewhere in the body pain is a symptom and not actually a diagnosis! 

Treatment 
As with all uncomplicated STIs, PRICE(MM) is the favoured approach. The Protection, Rest, Ice, Compression are fine although Elevation is not really practical. Medications and Modalities (physical treatments) should be sought from your GP or Chartered Physiotherapist if the pain persists more than a few days. 

If pain from the injury persists beyond 24 hours it’s a good idea to start to increase the movement in that area gently. This can be done with a few, gentle range of movement exercises. 

1) Lie on your back with your knees bent and your feet flat on the floor. Gently rock your knees from side to side. 
Increase your range of movement until the side of your right leg reaches the floor. Repeat this movement to the left. Continue to repeat this movement for ten repetitions each side. Try to keep your head and shoulders flat on the floor and remember to breathe gently throughout the exercise. 

2) Lie on your back with your knees bent and your feet flat on the floor. Take hold of your knees in your hands and slowly pull them up towards your chest. Hold them to your chest for a count of five seconds then slowly return them to their starting position. Continue to repeat this movement for ten repetitions. Try to keep your head and shoulders flat on the floor and remember to breathe gently throughout the exercise. 

3) Lie flat on your front with your hands palm down on the floor underneath your shoulders. Slowly straighten your arms so your head and shoulders rise up from the floor. Keep your low back relaxed so it begins to arch backwards as you straighten your arms and rise up. Keep the back relaxed (it’s not a press up) and remember to breathe gently throughout the exercise. Slowly lower yourself down and return to lying face down on the floor. Continue to repeat this movement for ten repetitions. 

Most treatment plans for the back will include manual therapy (manipulation and mobilisation), exercises (gentle bending and rotation of the neck) and modalities such as electrotherapy (ultrasound) or acupuncture (for pain and inflammation). All these treatments however are injury specific, so again assessment is very important. 

Rehabilitation 
As always one of the major goals of rehabilitation is to maintain your cadiovascular fitness levels, so for instance when you suffer a lower back injury try avoiding the continued impact of roadwork, initially try swimming instead and then progress onto aqua jogging with a flotation belt (running upright in a swimming pool without your feet touching the bottom of the pool). You, your coach/trainer and your physio should work together at devising alternative training programmes as soon as possible particularly if you are a competitive fighter. In addition to cardiovascular fitness, you may use the injury period as an opportunity to strengthen weaker areas whether they be physical, mental, technical or tactical. Your physical rehab plan should include exercises to restore normal strength using progressive resistance exercises and then continue to further develop strength in that area to protect it from possible future injury. In addition in the later stages rehab you should include some combat-specific drills(with an emphasis on proper technique).

There are plenty of rehab exercises and drills that can be worked with Swiss (Physio) balls and Therabands (variable resistance elastic bands) to aid strength in both flexion and rotation without overstressing the spine. However, as with any strengthening exercise in this area professional supervision is required to ensure the correct areas are being developed in a safe and progressive way. 
It must also be appreciated that the power, speed and angles which occur during competition may far exceed the criteria for successful completion of rehabilitation exercise. To be ready for competition you must perform over and above what you are required to do in competition. 

Return to Training/Competition 
Depending on the severity of the injury, it may take several months of physical therapy for you return to full training or competition. The differing types of lower back injury makes for a wide range of recovery and rehab times. Muscular injuries may be days to weeks whilst ligament injuries often take months to rehabilitate and a disc or nerve injury may prevent a return to full MMA competition permanently even after many months of rehabilitation. As always two key factors exists for return to full training/competition; firstly the risk of re-injury and secondly the ability to fight/perform at a satisfactory level.

These factors are often intertwined. When there is a risk of re-injury, the potential for further or permanent damage must also be considered and in the lumbar spine permanent damage can have a huge impact on the rest of your life. The criteria for return to competition after a lower back injury include restoration of normal strength, flexibility and stability. With biomechanical problems it is important to identify the specific activity that caused the initial injury so that activity can be avoided or training or postures modified. Avoidance steps may include changing technique, training habits, and equipment, and modifying posture and ergonomic practices at home and at work as well as during training. 

This is just a brief outline of the lumbar spine injuries you may incur during MMA training and competition and a rough guide to treatment and rehabilitation principles. If you have any specific low back or spinal problems you will need to seek first hand advice, assessment and treatment from an experienced sports injuries Chartered Physiotherapist. 


This article is for the purpose of information only and it is not intended to diagnose or treat medical conditions and is not considered to be a substitute for individual medical assessment and advice.

Read our Article on Neck Bridges for Neck Strength here





About Drew

MMA, Fitness & Marketing enthusiast from North Wales, UK. A Stoic Hippy with no hair. Not to boast but - 1st Class Degree in Sports Science from Loughborough, MSc in Nutrition from the University of Liverpool. 20 years experience of weight & fitness training.
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