Anatomy 101 for the Jiu Jitsu Athlete


Ligaments are probably the most commonly injured anatomical structures in jiu-jitsu related accidents and training injuries. Unlike the muscles, tendons, and cartilage which have some elastic properties, the ligaments are what connect bone to bone and have little tolerance to stretch. Designed to keep our joints in line, the ligaments are what keep the knee from shifting out of place and your elbow from hyperextending from an arm bar. Ligaments tend not to heal as well as muscles and bones. Once a ligament is torn, the healing and repair cycle is made less efficient by the lack of vasculature to these structures. Tear a major ligament and you’re guaranteed to have an unstable joint. The anterior cruciate ligament and medial collateral ligament in the knee are prone to injury during intense rolling sessions.



What Happens During Injury?

Injuries to any one or a combination of these structures are bound to occur throughout the lifetime of anyone who trains or competes in jiu-jitsu. So what exactly happens when you get an accidental kick to the thigh while rolling or an elbow joint hyperextended from an armbar? Simply put, with every injury there is tissue damage that occurs. The damage that occurs can be classified as either macrotrauma or microtrauma, and what we experience as a result is pain. Most of the injuries encountered in jiu-jitsu are the result of direct traumas to tissues leading to bruises, pulled muscles, and sprained joints. Overuse from too much training without proper rest can also lead to breakdown in the bones, ligaments, cartilage, tendons, and muscles.

Macrotraumas are the result of acute or sudden overloads to tissues, which result in immediate disruption of tissue integrity. Blunt traumas to soft tissues and bone can lead to either a contusion or fracture, while traumas to joints can result in dislocation and subluxations. Sprains are macrotraumas to the ligaments and other connective tissues that keep the bones together and the joints in place. Since the very nature of jiu-jitsu and submission grappling is to put an opponent in joint locks, it comes as no surprise to see a lot of injuries to the ligaments. Over time, laxity and instability can develop in a joint that has undergone repetitive traumas which ultimately leads to further injury.

Strains, or “pulled muscles” as they are often referred, are essentially tears in the muscle fibers. A sudden forceful contraction or resistance to such a force can result in a muscle strain. A tendon can also rupture if the tensile load applied to it exceeds the limit. Typically, a tendon’s fibers are significantly stronger than the muscle fibers to which they attach, so failure is more likely to occur within the muscle than the tendon where it attaches to bone.

Microtrauma is the damage that results from repeated, abnormal stresses applied to a tissue through repetitive motions or sustained mechanical load on our bodies. Pain on the outside of the knee can easily develop from doing too many active squat exercises during warm-up. The repetitive flexion and extension at the knee causes the fascia to rub where it attaches to the bone, and it becomes inflamed and is known as an iliotibial band friction syndrome. Overtraining without enough recovery time can cause microtears in the muscles and break down the cartilage in our joints. It’s a combination of these microtraumas that makes us feel the chronic aches and pains we feel in our muscles and joints. Whether it’s an acute injury or chronic pain, each injury requires specific rehabilitation strategies to ensure a prompt return to normal function. By far, the best thing we can do for any injury is give the body time to rest and heal. In the next issue we’ll cover the different kinds of treatments available and the benefits of each.



Dr. John Park is a chiropractic physician with physical therapy privileges practicing in Rockville, MD. He is a purple belt under Noel Danforth of Foundry Jiu-Jitsu a Team Alliance affiliate. He can be reached at for more information.

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