Preventing Common BJJ and CrossFit Injuries

BJJ practitioners and CrossFitters both want to spend as much time training as possible. Preventing low back and neck injuries is a huge part of this equation!

Sam Kressin of completes me. Hear me out on this one. I finished acupuncture school a year and a half before Sam did. Sam is a black belt in Brazilian jiu-jitsu and I am a purple belt (Sam once armbarred me the exact same way seven times in four minutes. Kind of sucked). You see that? It’s like we were supposed to be together in a different world.

Truth be told, Sam and I both share a rather unique combination of skill sets – we both have expertise in how to break things, and then put them back together again. I was overjoyed when Sam agreed to put something together for Breaking Muscle with me on our two favorite topics.

Sam and I are going to talk about the two most common injuries we seen in our offices from Brazilian jiu-jitsu and CrossFit.  We will share our thoughts on how to both prevent the injury from happening, as well as how to best heal it if it’s already happened. I’m going to talk about low backs and Sam is going to cover the neck.

This week we’re starting with prevention since we both believe a few minutes of preparation can save you months on the sidelines. Make preventative self-care as important as your workouts and training sessions are and you’re going to spend a lot more time on the mat and on the pull up bar.

Sam on neck injuries:

Cervical strain and sprain are two injuries I see often in Brazilian jiu-jitsu. The cervical neck is comprised of seven small vertebra, along with muscles, tendons, and ligaments that support the head. The cervical spine is the most mobile section of the spine, which in turn also makes it one of the most vulnerable. A sprain/strain is an injury that affects the soft tissue of the neck. A strain affects the muscles and tendons. A sprain affects the ligaments.

cervical spine, cervical injury, neck injury, bjj injuryA strain/sprain is often caused by overstretching the neck and can result from something as subtle as sleeping in an awkward position, or sitting with poor posture for a prolonged time. Brazilian jiu-jitsu, a contact sport similar to wrestling, also permits strangulation. Strangulation can cause the neck to be pulled, torqued, and stretched. The first injury I ever experienced in Brazilian jiu-jitsu was a neck injury. It resulted from another white belt grabbing my head and then pulling it up while twisting my neck to the side and squeezing, in an attempt to choke me. My neck hurt for weeks and I experienced limited range of motion and stiffness.

This brings us to the most common symptoms one will experience in a cervical strain/sprain injury: a stiff neck, tension, spasm, and rigidity of the muscle on one or both sides of the neck. Limited range of motion, tenderness, and pain can also accompany.

The neck is an area of the body often overlooked in strength training and conditioning. The lay person going to the gym to workout often doesn’t think in terms of strengthening their neck. While it is common to focus on the development of both lower and upper body strength for sports performance, most often the neck does not come to mind. However, in a sport like Brazilian jiu-jitsu, it is imperative that one begins to develop neck strength to avoid future injury from the get go. As a general rule, I never leave the mat without doing something to exercise my neck each time I train. In fact, research has shown that as little as twelve minutes of specific neck strength training, twice a week for eight weeks, will increase neck strength and reduce perceived pain in those who suffer from long term chronic neck pain.1

Rolling your head in circles, gently pulling your head side-to-side, front-to-back, and back-to-front for five minutes anytime before you get on a mat or lace up your Inov-8s will do wonders to prevent the adhesions and spasms listed above.

Using hand pressure as resistance is a great way to strengthen your neck. Place your hand on your forehead, with the opposite hand providing pressure from underneath your elbow. Press your forehead into your hand for 20 seconds with 5 seconds of rest. Repeat this 3 times.

Using the same format as above, repeat the exercise with your hand on each side of your head as well as using your interlaced fingers behind your head. Five to ten minutes later, you’ve taken a large step in strengthening your cervical area. Making this a regular part of your training routine is imperative.

Traver on low back injuries:

Lumbar injuries are far more common to CrossFitters than they are to grapplers, but both groups experience them and when they do it usually means a trip to the side line for at least a few months. No bueno. The two most important prevention strategies for low back injuries are strengthening the area consistently and losing your ego.

back injury, lower back injury, low back injury, jiu jitsu back injuryStrengthening your “core” gets talked about constantly. It’s why CrossFitters do so many of the movements we do, such as overhead squats, kettelbell swings, and glute/ham developer sit ups. Grapplers would do well to put such movements into their off the mat training routine, if they have one, and utilize them often.

So many grapplers spend a day slouched in front of a computer at work allowing all of their midline stabilizing muscles to go slack before rushing to class to torque their backs into all kinds of pretzel-like positions. Strengthen the core of your body – your abdominal muscles, your obliques, your glutes, your erectors, everything that holds you upright from the mid-thigh to your diaphragm – and make this conditioning work as much a part of your athletic practice as time on the mat is.

What’s the number one reason that CrossFitters hurt their backs? Ego. Yep, it’s true. Yes, there are definitely people who come into the sport ego-less but with a preexisting weakness in their low backs and get hurt. Far more often, it’s the jump from a shaky 285 pound deadlift to the attempt of a 316 pound deadlift – all in the name of knocking off the fifth place guy on the leader board who’s holding strong at 315 – that leads to a couple of months of education on low back injuries.

Arbitrary numbers should never trump common sense and form. Never. No athlete should risk permanent injury in the name of ego satisfaction. Think long term always. The saying, “live to train another day.” is the best mantra that one can have for lumbar protection.

So what do you do if you already have one of these injuries? Sam and I will be back next week with insights into self-healing techniques for both areas, stay tuned!

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