Martial Arts (Care of the Young Athlete)

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More than 6 million children in the United
States participate in martial arts. Martial arts are known to improve social
skills, discipline, and respect in children. Children can also improve their
abilities to concentrate and focus on activities, as well as bettering their
motor skills and self-confidence. Martial arts can be fun and beneficial at any

While the martial arts are relatively safe, injuries
can happen because there is physical contact between opponents. The following is
information from the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) about how to prevent
martial art injuries. Also included is an overview of martial arts forms.

Injury prevention and safety tips

  • Instructors. Experienced
    instructors will teach at a level appropriate for your child’s
    age and maturity. Lessons should emphasize technique and self-control.
    Experienced instructors will carefully advance your child through more
    complex training. Lessons should also be fun. Visit a variety of
    instructors and ask about their experiences with young children and
    their teaching philosophy.

  • Technique. An
    instructor’s emphasis on technique and self-control is very
    important in limiting the risk for injury. Children should learn to
    punch and kick with their hands and feet in proper position and using
    the appropriate amount of force. Kicks and punches with the hand or foot
    in the wrong position can cause injuries to fingers and toes. Punches or
    kicks that are too hard can cause pain or bruises. Contact to the head
    should be discouraged.

  • Equipment. Safety gear
    should fit properly and be well maintained.

    • Headgear. When the
      rules allow, protective headgear should be worn for sparring or
      for activities with risk of falling, such as high jumps or
      flying kicks.

    • Body pads can help
      protect against scrapes and bruises and limit the pain from
      kicks and punches. Arm pads, shin pads, and chest protection for

    • Mouth guards.

  • Environment. Mats and
    floors should be safe to play on. Gaps between mats can cause sprained
    ankles. Wet or worn floors can cause slips and falls.

Common injuries

Scrapes and bruises

Scrapes and bruises are by far the most
common injuries seen in the martial arts. They often result from falls onto
mats, kicks and punches that are “off target,” or when proper
padding is not worn. All scrapes and cuts should be washed with soap and
water and bandaged before returning to activity. Bruises are best treated
with ice applied for 20 to 30 minutes. They will slowly get better and fade
over 2 to 3 days.

Sprains and strains

Sprains and strains become more common as
children get older. Ankles, knees, and elbows are the joints most often
sprained. Muscle strains usually happen in the front (quadriceps) or the
back (hamstrings) of the thigh. Most knee and ankle sprains occur either by
landing awkwardly after a jump or by improper contact with a partner. Elbow
and wrist injuries happen with falling, punching, or blocking. Muscle
strains can occur with trying to kick too high or punch too hard without
using correct form or having properly warmed up.

Finger and toe injuries

Finger and toe injuries are often due to the
large amount of kicking and punching of padded targets. They may also happen
when sparring with a partner. These injuries are usually the result of poor
kicking and punching technique. Contact with the target should never be
initiated with the fingers or toes. Jammed fingers result from holding the
hand in the wrong position (fingers spread) or if the toes are used to hit
the target (instead of the heel or top of the foot).

Any injury that is associated with a
dislocation, deformity, inability to straighten or bend the finger, or
significant pain should be examined by a doctor. X-rays are usually needed.
Buddy tape may be all that is needed to return to sports; however, this
cannot be assumed without an exam and x-ray. Swelling often persists for
weeks to months after a finger joint sprain. Ice, nonsteroidal
anti-inflammatory drugs, and range of motion exercises are important for

Head injuries

Concussions can occur in martial arts if
children fall and strike their heads, or if they are kicked or punched in
the head. A concussion is any injury to the brain that disrupts normal brain
function on a temporary or permanent basis.

The signs and symptoms of a concussion range
from subtle to obvious and usually happen right after the injury but may
take hours to days to show up. Athletes who have had concussions may report
feeling normal before their brain has fully recovered. With most
concussions, the player is not knocked out or unconscious.

Prematurely returning to play after a
concussion can lead to another concussion or even death. An athlete with a
history of concussion is more susceptible to another injury than an athlete
with no history of concussion. Once a concussion has occurred, it is
important to make sure the helmet is fitted properly. If the concussion
occurred due to the player leading with the head to make a tackle, he should
be strongly discouraged from continuing that practice.

All concussions are serious, and all athletes with suspected
concussions should not return to play until they see a doctor. The AAP
recommends children avoid sports that reward blows to the head.

Types of martial arts

The term martial arts can be
used to describe any number of styles or disciplines of self-defense practices.
There are many different styles practiced around the world, with the most
popular forms being karate, tae kwon do, and judo.

  • Karate (KAH-rah-teh) means
    “empty hand,” as it is normally practiced without
    Karate is a traditional Japanese form. The hands and
    feet are trained and prepared for use in a weaponless form of self-

  • Tae kwon do (tahy-kwon-doh) means
    “the way of foot and fist.”
    This is a
    traditional Korean martial art. It is also the most popular. This form
    highlights discipline, respect, and personal growth and focuses on the
    use of the feet for powerful kicks in self-defense.

  • Judo (joo-doh) means
    “gentle way” and is known for a variety of throwing
    It uses many methods to control an opponent while
    on the ground. In many ways it is more similar to wrestling than to the
    other martial arts.

  • Kung fu (kung-foo) most commonly
    translates to “hard work” and is one of the oldest
    forms of martial arts.
    The term may be used to describe all
    of the hundreds of Chinese martial arts. Kung fu is mainly a
    “stand-up” form of the martial arts, known for its
    powerful blocks. Wushu is the most popular and modern form of kung

  • Aikido (eye-key-do) means
    “way of harmony.”
    This Japanese martial art is
    known as a throwing style. It teaches a nonaggressive approach to
    self-defense, focusing on joint locks, throws, and restraining
    techniques, rather than kicks and punches. While aikido may be learned
    at any age, it is especially popular among women and older adults.
    Aikido is not practiced as a competitive sport.

  • Jujitsu (joo-jit-soo) means
    “the art of softness” and emphasizes techniques that
    allow a smaller fighter to overcome a bigger, stronger
    First practiced in Japan, jujutsu is considered a
    ground fighting or grappling style of the martial arts. Many of the
    forms have been incorporated into other martial arts such as judo,
    karate, and aikido. The arm lock and submission techniques have been
    taught to police all over the world.


Martial arts injuries can be prevented with
proper supervision and compliance with the rules and safety guidelines in place
for martial arts.