The Most Common Muay Thai Training, Sparring & Fighting Injuries
Many are under the impression that starting Muay Thai will lead to serious injury. This is both true and not true. Serious injuries can happen doing anything, Muay Thai included. But this doesn’t mean it will inevitably happen, and the chances of it happening are minimized with smart training and sparring habits.
But when injuries do happen, what sorts of injuries are most prevalent?
The general population would most likely say head injuries, as many boxers retire with issues related to taking shots to the head over years, such as Parkinson’s and even premature death. However, Muay Thai is different from boxing in may ways, and a smart Muay Thai fighter can easily avoid taking unnecessary shots by relying on fight IQ instead of brute strength.
Different martial arts have different particular injury patterns – taekwondo and karate have more injuries to the head and lower extremities (Wilkerson, 1997), while kendo has more injuries to the left side of the body (Dvorine, 1979), and complete shoulder separation can happen in judo (Zarzycki, 1998).
There is much more research and data regarding injuries in more well-known combat sports, but with Muay Thai growing, there are a few published research papers regarding this. With a cumulative effort, let’s evaluate and see which injuries prevail most in the Muay Thai world.
The most common injuries across the board for all martial arts are the minor ones that nobody can escape from – bruises, sprains, strains, and cuts. This accounts for at least 80-90% of all injuries (Gartland, 2001) during both training and fighting.
Interestingly enough, training yields more injuries than sparring, tournaments, and competitions (Birrer, 1996), probably because the conditions of sparring, tournaments, and competitions are in a very controlled environment and those events occur much less frequently than training does. However, when injuries do occur during those events, they are more severe because the opponents do not hold back in power. What can be prevented are sprains and strains by properly warming up before training.
The second most common injury for professional fighters are fractures (Gartland, 2001), including the nose, wrist, hands, toes, and ribs. Professionals usually do not wear much protective gear in their fights, and are likely to train harder and hit harder than a beginner or amateur, so it’s not hard to see why this is the case.
In a study done to see injury rates and where the injuries happen on the body (Gartland, 2001), they found that the lower extremities were the most commonly injured site across the board for beginners, amateur fighters, and professional fighters, similar to karate and taekwondo (Stricevic, 1983). These injuries, besides the common bruises and cuts, included broken toes, ankle and knee sprains, and a fractured shin.
For beginners, the trunk (main part of the body) was the second-most injured site (including 13 incidences a fractured rib), followed by the upper extremity (shoulder sprains, finger sprains, a fractured wrist), and head injuries only accounted for 2.3% of all injuries. However, for amateur and professional fighters, the second-most common site of injury was the head (including a broken jaw and quite a few broken noses), and the trunk was the least commonly injured place.
The lower extremities being the most commonly injured site comes at no surprise, especially when you look at how little protection the feet and legs get in comparison to the hands and head (if wearing headgear), and the force of a strike using the legs is much higher than, say, the hands (Schwartz, 1986). You also have to consider how often the legs are used in comparison to the arms. The legs are used to throw kicks and knees, which score the highest in Muay Thai, and they are also used to block incoming kicks.
How about fighting? What happens to the data when you only look at injuries sustained by fighters during fights?
In a 16-year study (Zazryn, 2003) done on injuries in professional (meaning no gear besides gloves and, if needed, cup) kickboxers (Muay Thai included), they found 90.4% of the fighters only sustained one injury during a fight. 8.4% sustained two injuries, and about 1.2% got three injuries.
Where in the previous study accounted for both training and fighting found lower extremity injuries were most common, head injuries (head, neck, face) are most common when you only look at fighting, accounting for about 51.6% of injuries.
The second most common injury region is lower extremities, which made up of 39.8% of injuries in the study. The lower leg was the most common injured body site, which reflects that nature of Muay Thai. Skin lacerations were 25% of all injuries.
Being struck by an opponent is the most common mechanism for fight injuries happening, and most injuries were not identified as severe and did not affect the fighter during the bout (Strotmeyer, 2016). Concussions made up of only 5.4% of injuries in this same sample. Higher fight experience seemed to correlate with higher frequency of injury in the fights.
How do injury rates in martial arts compare to other activities?
Well, martial arts injury rates are about 1/20th of those of American football (United States Consumer Products Safety Commission, 1979-1994), and if you don’t look at minor injuries such as bruises, cuts, strains, and sprains, Muay Thai is actually safer than playing golf or doing general exercise! (Birrer, 1983)
At the end of the day, you can get injured doing anything. With Muay Thai, it is a controlled environment and, for the most part, you can control the environment you’re in and can prevent injuries from happening. Don’t let your fear of getting hurt keep you from taking up this sport!
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Birrer RB, Birrer CD. Unreported injuries in the martial arts. Br J Sports Med 1983;17:131–4.
Dvorine W. Kendo: a safer martial art. Physician and Sports Medicine 1979; 7:87–9.
Gartland S, Malik MHA, Lovell ME. Injury and injury rates in Muay Thai kick boxing. J Sports Med 2001;35:308–313
Oler M, Tomson W, Pepe H, et al. Morbidity and mortality in the martial arts: a warning. J Trauma 1991;31:251–3.
Schwartz ML, Hudson AR, Fernie GR,et al. Biomechanical study of full-contact karate contrasted with boxing. J Neu- rosurg 1986;64:248.
Stricevic MV, Patel MR, Okazaki T, et al: Karate: historical perspective and injuries sustained in national and international tournament competitions. Am J Sports Med 1983; 11:320–4.
Strotmeyer, S Jr, Coben JH, Fabio A, Songer T, Brooks M. Epidemiology of Muay Thai fight-related injuries. Injury Epidemiology, 2016; 3:30
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- Plant-based fighter, foodie, and aspiring physical therapist. Angela is currently living in Bangkok and training full time.