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Dr. Mark
Dr. Mark, Physician / Surgeon
Category: Medical
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Experience:  U.S. Surgeon / Neurological Surgery
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does sparring in Mixed Martial Arts (Muay Thai, specifically)

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does sparring in Mixed Martial Arts (Muay Thai, specifically) cause brain damage, even with headgear and a mouthpiece? I was told the force of punches, kicks, elbows, and knees in sparring sessions are delivered at 20-30%, but some people punch as hard as 50%. I'm 210 pounds, so i'd be sparring with people the same size. My main concern is that I'll lose some cognitive faculties (sense, imagination, understanding, memory) with every blow, and my aspiration to be a writer are very ambition, any loss of the limited intelligence i have would be detrimental to my goals. I require every bit of brain I can muster. Would it be wise to practice Muay Thai? I would be learning, and physically active, both I've heard can improve thought (please correct me if I'm wrong). Thank you for your time. I would like this to be the end all on my concerns, so i can finally make a decision.


Let's put it this way: Even with headgear, any impact to the head swivels the neck, and the brain actually "sloshes" a bit inside the cranium. The brainstem can twist, and, with sufficient kinetic energy to the head, the brain can strike the inside of the skull and be bruised. Thus, it is possible to be rendered unconscious with a blow to the helmeted head. My suggestion would be, if you're so concerned about keeping all you faculties as far as brain power goes, you refrain from any sport that involves blows to the head.
Customer: replied 7 years ago.
so if unconciousness is indicative of brain damage, would i still receive brain damage if i was never knocked unconscious? My concern is one of gradual damage, accumulative, from sparring. Is their credence to this concern? That brain damage might happen without me noticing something as blatant as a concussion? If i never had a headache after sparring, would i still have reason to worry? If i did have a headache after sparring would this be indicative of brain damage? Thanks
Between you and me, so long as you weren't rendered unconscious, there'd probably be no change in your score on IQ tests and cognitive ability tests. It probably will do your brain no harm to participate in martial arts so long as something very violent happened. I only suggested your refraining from them because of your strong concern over possible brain damage.
Customer: replied 7 years ago.
Give me a moment to get a few other opinions.
Dr. Chip gives a valid viewpoint here.

However, studies on the brains of a few athletes, notably those that had participated in (head) contact sports such as professional football and boxing have shown that incremential injuries to the head do lead to changes that are similar to Alzheimer's dementia.

While it doesn't take you to be knocked unconscious to sustain a tiny amount of damage to the brain -- after years of getting hit in the head -- the damage accumulates and starts to interfere with cognitive abilities.

A famous case of this, "dementia puligistica" - is Muhammad Ali.

So if this is a concern to you -- avoid sports that cause repeated jarring to the head.
Customer: replied 7 years ago.
So a lot of my knowledge was supplemented from this site.

The gym i'm interested in told me they spar at 20-50% of full force with proper headgear. Would this cause brain injury that would effect my cognitive abilities in the slightest.

"The force of a professional boxer's fist is equivalent to being hit with a 13 pound bowling ball traveling 20 miles per hour, about 52 g's. Plopping down into an easy chair can generate up to 10 g's. So, it seems that somewhere between 10 and 50 g's is the threshold to permanent brain injury" What do you think the force required would be?

I haven't been able to find studies on whether light sparring causes ANY brain damage. So should i assume it causes none at all? I would love a case study if you could reference it. I'm really concerned about accumulative wear, not necessarily those associated with the traumas professional boxers are subjected to. Maybe more in the line of Amateur boxing sparring sessions. Also, in your own professional opinion, (humor me), would you subject yourself to amateur boxing if you were interested in it? Would you be similarly fearful of this accumulative wear, even given the gym's above stated assurances?

The reason you can't find studies on "light sparring" -- is that it would take years, or decades to actually see if it does happen.

So such a study will never be done. So it's impossible to say what specific forces would be responsible for small amounts of brain injury.

The information we have is based on people that are known to have had professional careers that involved regular shots to the head (football and boxing) -- so these are probably injuries that involve greater force than "light sparring".

I myself would not participate in boxing (only because I'm a neurosurgeon and I know what could happen to me if someone hit me "just right" -- I don't want to risk any, even small brain inury, that would risk my career).
Customer: replied 7 years ago.
Alright, last little question.

Why would it take years or decades to actually see if "light sparring" causes damage? Would the effects be too small, that it would be negligible and nearly impossible to find? or is the procedure too difficult to accomplish for such little rewards?

Here's two conflicting arguments about amateur boxing, and whether it causes damage. This one says it DOES

This one says there's no evidence that it causes damage.

where do you side? Albeit these concern Chronic Traumatic Brain injury and my concern is a damage of a lesser severity. I think it applies to my concern and i would like to see what you think. I'm concerned about something of a lesser severity, a gradual degradation of intelligence.

Again, i'm hassling you, but my first session might be coming up here pretty soon. I'd like to learn self defense, or a sport combat, but its not worth sacrificing what I've worked for intellectually.

Your links point to the same exact page.

But nevertheless -- I am on the side that even light sparring -- if it delivers jolts to the head -- could result in micro damage to the brain -- which after a long time (decades) can lead to an accellerated decline in cognitive function.

So, with anything, one has to weigh the risks and rewards. It getting this exercise now keeps you fit, not overweight, and allows for more confidence with self defense -- then it may be worth it.

For someone like me, at this point in my life, it is not worth it.
Customer: replied 7 years ago.
Thanks Dr. Mark. Your help has been invaluable. Before i give you your 14 bucks. I just need a few clarifications You're telling me that 2 years of "light sparring" will in fact cause micro damage, but the damage is negligible. Does that mean it will also heal, and if so, quickly? Did i stretch to far on this?

Damage to the brain does not typically "heal". When a neuron's connections are injured in the brain -- it is typically permanent.

However, there are millions of such connections in the brain. So if each hit to the brain destroys about 10 (I'm making this number up), then you can hit yourself in the head thousands of times before something changes in your cognition.

But who knows what "two years" of sparring will do. Probably nothing, but that is not an answer that anyone can give with certainty.
Dr. Mark, Physician / Surgeon
Category: Medical
Satisfied Customers: 11946
Experience: U.S. Surgeon / Neurological Surgery
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