How Bad Is a Hit to the Head? Very, Says Science

We’ve heard football is dangerous when it comes to concussions. Turns out soccer players are at higher risk for ALS, too. And MMA fighters? Well, that one seems pretty obvious, right?

It is sometimes shocking to see an unconscious fighter take a few extra strikes to the head before the referee is able to end the match. MMA proponents have long argued that their sport is safer than boxing. With bigger gloves allowing for heavier blows without breaking a hand, and ten full seconds or more to recover from a dizzying knock down, it has been argued that boxing allows for more repetitive head trauma in each bout.

MMA and boxing aren’t the only sports concerned lately with the safety of their athletes’ brains. Last month a study published by the American Academy of Neurology reviewed nearly 3,500 past NFL players who had played in at least five seasons. What they found was pretty shocking. They looked specifically at three neurodegenerative diseases (diseases that kill through problems with the nervous system): Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS). The chance that professional football players would die from these diseases was three times more than the general population.

In a response to the study, another researcher noted an even bigger risk of death for soccer players from ALS, but not from the other two diseases. Soccer, like football, is known for traumatic head injuries.

Does this research translate to the combat sports as well? First things first, the researchers studying football and soccer do not fully agree that head trauma alone is responsible for the increase in neurodegenerative disease. The studies performed so far do not agree in the type of disease that results from head trauma, which, as one researcher noted, could indicate differing causes of disease among sports. The bottom line implication is that different types of head trauma, and differing levels of head protection, might yield different consequences for premature death. An even stronger possibility is that something else entirely increases, or augments, the risk of neurological disease. This might be physical exertion or performance enhancing drugs.

As a result of the need for more data on head trauma, it isn’t fair to say that combat athletes are as likely as football or soccer players to suffer from neurodegenerative disease. One thing is for certain, with a proper training camp that limits heavy shots to the head, the competitive season for professional fighters is shorter each year than in other sports. Despite the combative nature of MMA and boxing it might be true that the number of significant blows to the head each week throughout the year is significantly less than for other sports.

Going ahead it will be important for all sports to determine how each variable, from head trauma to drug abuse, impacts the long term neurological health of the athletes. For combat sports specifically, it would be good for further research in mitigating the damage to fighters who do lose via knock out, or even technical knockout.


1. Everett J. Lehman, et. al., “Neurodegenerative causes of death among retired National Football League players,” Neurology, vol. 79 no. 19 1970-1974 (2012)

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