MMA (mixed martial arts) is a contact heavy sport focused on striking and grappling. When two fighters engage in the ring, the goal is for one of them to either KO their opponent or get them to tap out through a submission.
Naturally, injuries can occur and if you’re an athlete yourself, you may be wondering how do MMA fighters deal with pain? MMA is not an inherently dangerous sport and safety has come a long way since the first UFC. Back then, we even saw one fighter get two of his teeth kicked out.
In this article, we’ll go over the types of injuries an MMA fighter may experience. After, you’ll learn more about how to deal with pain, injury, and get on the road to recovery. While OTC pain relievers are common, there’s much more so keep reading to be better prepared.
How Painful is MMA as a Sport?
We’d be lying if we said you won’t experience any pain while training MMA. Naturally, as with any contact sport, some level of pain and discomfort is to be expected but serious injuries are rare. Not all injuries occur in the ring either.
Many MMA fighters will engage in other related activities such as conditioning, weight lifting, and stretching. These also have the possibility to result in injury or you may experience delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS).
Not every MMA or martial arts practitioner is going to fight professionally either. Some will train more recreationally or as a hobby. Therefore the risk of pain and serious injuries for that group will be lower.
The bottom line though, regardless of your level, you’ll likely experience pain at some point. Next, we’ll go over specific kinds of pain and their potential impacts.
Dissecting the Impact of Pain
Pain can go beyond just the physical feeling. In the case of a physical impact, for example, you may have a lower range of motion for the affected area. However, there can be psychological effects too which are important to understand.
Pain can have some major psychological effects which we’ll cover first. For example, fear or uncertainty are very common, especially in your first few fights. If you get hit repeatedly, it may cause you to change your game plan or you may be stunned at first.
Other injuries can also lead to feelings of frustration. For example, you may want to get back to the gym but can’t due to your injury. Perhaps you’ve strained your shoulder while lifting weights or maybe stretched too hard.
Feelings of fear aren’t uncommon either. Maybe early on into your training you get hit really hard leading to hesitation on your counters. We’ve all heard of flight or fight which is the natural reaction to an external threat. Some people however may freeze instead of react, which can be a real issue in such a fast paced sport. Through training and repeat exposure you can get better control over your reactions and thoughts.
Certainly, not everyone is going to be successful in the sport, but it’s important to note all these reactions above are valid and normal. If you’re experiencing difficulty, it’s okay to reach out for help or let your coach know. After all, that’s what they’re there for.
Now let’s look at the more well-known impacts of pain, the physical. There are immediate reactions to being struck, for example in the liver, and then there are more long-term effects. Physically, you may immediately feel dizzy and nauseous. The pain and soreness could last for days though if not longer.
A common tactic in MMA fights is also to kick the opponent in the legs using low kicks. The primary purpose of this is to reduce their use of their legs and footwork. If hit hard enough, they may even buckle, giving you a quick opportunity.
This is one reason why all martial artists go through a high level of training and conditioning. It’s important to be able to handle the pain and raise your tolerance threshold. During a fight, it’s vital that these shots don’t limit or unsettle you and that you can keep fighting at your best.
How do MMA Fighters Deal With the Pain?
One aspect we touched on above is the training and conditioning to improve your thresholds and pain tolerance. It’s important to train your reflexes and speed as well. After all, it’s best if you can avoid the hits in the first place by moving out of the way, ducking, bobbing, slipping, and more.
In Muay Thai, the practitioners take an interesting approach. For example, you’ll see them striking the heavy bag with their shins and other areas. This toughens up that part of the body, makes it stronger, and also increases your pain tolerance. Part of this has to do with killing nerve endings in the shin area, which is why it’s slightly controversial. Proper warm-ups and stretching beforehand also reduce the chance of any injuries later on.
For after the fight, taking medications like Advil or Tylenol might be helpful. These reduce both pain and swelling and can help you heal more quickly.
Rarely, we see some fighters with almost superhuman levels of endurance and pain tolerance. Tony Ferguson is one notable example of this as he appears to take groin shots very well, and with little noticeable reaction. We’ve also seen him not tap out to armbars and leglocks, even when the pain should have been extremely high.
Ultimately, people’s pain thresholds and tolerance can vary greatly. Some just naturally have it, but it can be improved even more through training. Sometimes people imagine something far worse than it actually is. Early on as you begin, it should be clear what your own abilities are.
Do MMA Fighters Get Sore After a Fight?
With their level of training and athleticism, you may wonder if they feel any pain or soreness at all. MMA fighters, however, are still human and will naturally experience soreness after a fight. Many fights can be grueling affairs, taking up a large amount of energy and stamina.
For some short fights that end quickly, there might not be much need for recovery afterward. However, we’ve seen some fights which go for several rounds. During the fight, both MMA participants have high levels of adrenaline and endorphins pumping. This keeps them going and limits any discomfort they’re feeling.
However, when the fight is over, those hormones go back down, and the true magnitude of any injuries or effects from the match will begin to set in. This is where the post-fight recovery begins and we’ll look at that next.
Let’s look at a few common injuries that an MMA fighter may experience with a quick description.
A bruise will be due to a direct impact on your body. This will commonly occur from your opponent’s strikes such as a punch or kick. Sometimes it can be self-inflicted if you happen to be striking the heavy bag or other objects especially hard or beyond your current level.
With new exercise, it might be possible to overdo it. Start out slowly and gradually work your way up. Remember to always properly stretch and warm up beforehand to reduce the risk of any pulled muscles during training. It’s also important to be properly hydrated with enough electrolytes as well.
Delayed onset muscle soreness can be common after weight lifting. One theory why this occurs is that lifting heavy weights causes small tears in your muscle which are then repaired. Usually, this shouldn’t be severe and typically resolves itself in a few days.
A bone fracture is fairly rare but there is one kind you should watch out for. A boxer’s fracture is a break in the fifth metacarpal in your hand. This is a result of punching the heavy bag too hard and also not wrapping your hands correctly or using gloves. Therefore, this injury can easily be prevented with proper care, but should it happen to you it’s important to see a doctor.
How do MMA Fighters Deal With Pain?
In this section, we’ll look at how to treat pain or injury after the match. While we already discussed pain during a bout, this will be more about the days and weeks that follow. There are several options from OTC medications, physical therapy, massage therapy, and other home treatments to aid your recovery.
Over the counter medications are the most common and readily accessible treatment option for pain. These however fall into some different categories, so we’ll explain that too in order for you to know what’s best.
NSAID, which stands for nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, lowers both inflammation and pain. These can be quite useful, especially if you have any swelling with your injury. However, even without any specific inflammation, it’s still effective at reducing pain. Common examples are Ibuprofen (Advil) and Naproxen (Aleve).
Analgesic medication is used to reduce your pain, however, it’s important to note it may not do anything to affect the nature of the injury (such as reducing swelling). Acetaminophen (Tylenol) is one of the most common medications in this class. One advantage over NSAIDs is that Acetaminophen can be less irritating to the stomach and GI tract.
In some cases, you may be able to take Acetaminophen and Ibuprofen together. In fact, some brands already use both medications as ingredients. Be careful however that you are not taking two different brands which use the same active ingredient.
There are various creams and gels which you can apply directly to the area where you’re feeling pain. Common ingredients can include things like menthol or camphor which create alternating burning/cooling sensations. This effect distracts from any pain you’re feeling.
Salicylates are another ingredient that can be absorbed through the skin and provide relief from joint pain. There are also various herbal products that promise pain relief and you can ask your doctor about prescription products too.
Ice is a very common method for dealing with sprains, swelling, or pain in various settings. Ice is best used right after the injury, to try and reduce potential swelling and the cold also has a pain-relieving effect. Recently, there’s been some debate about whether ice is always good. In some cases, heat may be preferred over ice. Heat can be used later on, for sore muscles as it can increase blood supply to the area and speed up recovery.
Moving past medications, let’s now look more at physical therapy. This can be important especially if you have more serious injuries, long-term problems, or repeat injuries to the same area. There are even clinics that specialize in sports or martial arts related recovery.
A physical therapist and physical therapy clinic typically have several different tools at their disposal and even other kinds of practitioners likely work there. For example, it’s not uncommon to find a massage therapist at these locations as well.
A physical therapist will assess the extent of your injury and provide a tailored program for you. This can include a combination of massage, adjustments, a TENS machine, and exercises that you can perform at the clinic and at home.
Conclusion – Staying on Top of Pain
If you decide to start MMA it’s likely you’ll experience some pain or injury at some point. However, the good news is serious problems are extremely rare and MMA continues to be a safe sport. From OTC medications, exercise, and physical therapy, MMA fighters can manage their pain in many ways. Be sure to check back soon as we regularly have new articles on various topics relating to martial arts.