This August will mark my family’s sixth year participating in the martial art and sport of Brazilian jiu-jitsu. A
friend expressed his belief that our family might enjoy the exercise and sport. It quickly became apparent how passionate Brazilian jiu jitsu practitioners can be. This passion and obsession can lead to a variety of injuries that players often choose to ignore. After practicing and watching enough BJJ, as a chiropractor I wanted to help fix and prevent any Brazilian Jiu Jitsu neck injury problems I could.
Cauliflower ear? Keep training. Broken Nose? Keep training. Broken hand? Use your other hand and keep training. Separated shoulder? Tuck it into your belt and keep training.
This mindset is commonplace despite the objections of chiropractors, physical therapists and health care practitioners. This may even include include a permanent problem by way of Brazilian jiu jitsu neck injury. This is how a chiropractor can help.
Brazilian Jiu Jitsu Neck Injury Problems
Neck injuries are common in many different sports and Brazilian Jiu Jitsu is no exception. In fast moving sports like football, hockey, or soccer the many neck injuries are resultant of high impact collisions. Ultimately, iu jitsu creates a perfect storm of slow, methodical, repetitive pressure that may lead to a serious cervical injury.
Pinched nerves and stingers remain a standard descriptor among athletes to describe a neck injury. Symptoms may include, but are not limited to:
- Numbness and decreased sensation into the arm.
- Sharp and radiating pain into the area of the impinged nerve.
- Paresthesia, aka pins and needles sensation.
- Weakness in the affected areas.
- Atrophy in moderate to extreme nerve impingement.
- Electric shock or burning/stinging sensation into shoulder or arm.
At some point we will all feel one of these symptoms if you are practicing the art of jiu jitsu at a reasonably high level or simply a long period of time. With my experience as a chiropractor and understanding of how anatomy is affected by Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, here are the most common submissions and positions that can cause a neck injury.
Rear Naked Choke & Neck Crank BJJ
One of the most popular submissions to teach in a gi or nogi jiu jitsu class, it is relatively easy to learn and drill without much danger to your training partner. However, once a live roll begins all bets are off as egos and unwillingness to tap take over a brain.
As mentioned above, symptoms vary a great deal in neck injuries so it is important to rule out a nerve impingement from a cervical disc injury. The difference between a disc problem and pinched nerve can be accomplished with a thorough orthopedic and neurological exam. Queen Anne Chiropractic Center has cared for over 20 jiu jitsu and grappling practitioners with symptoms of cervical nerve impingement, thoracic outlet syndrome, and stenosis. While the mechanism of injury can be unique there is a likelihood that many were injured by the repeated application of a rear naked choke and its’ defense.
Upon palpation of each person, the vast majority presented with a unilateral muscle spasm of their trapezius. It is common to hear that it is a spasm that “never goes away” or that they are constantly massaging it. This usually indicates that there has been misalignment of the first rib which often occurs when someone has a trauma causing lateral head movement(think t-bone car accident) or an extremely quick shrugging motion. If you are familiar with BJJ this might sound like the very first action you take to protect your neck from a choking submission.
Similarity of Injury
In most cases the spinous process is rotated and misaligned to the right side. This indicates that the mechanism of injury was left rotation of the head with sustained pressure.
BJJ Neck Crank Injury
The likely mechanism of injury is the application of the rear naked choke utilizing the right arm of the opponent. This is equally important since it’s the most common side people attack and opponent defends.
The amount of pressure and position of the choking arm often determines the severity of displacement and injury. It doesn’t take much to go from a well applied rear naked choke to a neck crank injury.
The solution, from a chiropractic perspective, is to realign the first thoracic vertebra, and to adjust the corresponding rib that is now superior. Realigning the rib in an inferior direction via a prone chiropractic adjustment is the solution. It is often necessary to check the TMJ alignment but will always depend on that persons unique history.
It is vitally important to understand the direction of the T1 spinous rotation in order to effectively realign vertebra. This type of misalignment where a single vertebra has rotated individually leaving the two other vertebrae in proper alignment is highly unusual. Again, this speaks to the quick, rotational, shrugging motion of the injury.
Arm Triangle Choke
Which one is safest: An Arm Triangle, Anaconda, or Darce choke? The truth is that all three positions are all extremely destructive to the neck. It would be splitting hairs to decide which submission is the dangerous as they all supply similar forces.
If you are new to jiu jitsu know the difference between the arm triangles is body placement and arm position. Whether the arm triangle is from the side, or front headlock understand that tapping is an option. The difficulty level of a choke or neck crank recovery can take weeks, months or years. Some never from their BJJ neck injury.
Just go and ask any brown or black belt with a neck injury if they can pinpoint the moment it happened. More often than not, they will be possible for them to immediately pinpoint when things went wrong. If that’s not enough, listen to recent podcast interviews of Big John McCarthy, Pat Miletich, Joe Rogan and Bas Rutten who have all suffered serious neck injuries by way of an arm triangle. Here is a short summary:
Tap Early: Jiu Jitsu Neck Injuries
Each person mentioned above was demonstrating or receiving an arm triangle in a safe and effective manner. Then BOOM, the restrictive and compressive force causes irreversible damage, not just a sore neck after jiu jitsu. Their necks likely had pre-existing degenerative conditions, but a python level squeeze can injure a healthy neck.
These juggernauts had been competing hard on the mats for years but a neck injury can happen instantly. Here are a number of potential solutions for jiu jitsu neck injuries.
It is important to emphasize the need of a smart, skillful, and thoughtful training partner. Unfortunately there is no guarante as BJJ and grapping gyms may attract people who are there “to do UFC”. Try to choose a partner that has a high skill level and reputation of being a good partner.
Having the skill to recognize the submission an opponent is attempting is vital to preventing a serious injury. That way it is possible to try to effectively escape or quickly tap when needed.Live to roll another day.
Joe Rogan, Miletich, McCarthy, and Rutten all explain that their injuries were due to not tapping.
The Role of a Chiropractor
The most important thing a chiropractor can do to help is realign the spine with a chiropractic adjustment. This will help bring back symmetry and increase the cervical curve while removing interference from the spinal cord and nerves. This will decrease symptoms and create a structure that allows proper weight distribution of the head.
In order to prevent further injury it is vital undue pressure on compressed, herniated, or compromised cervical discs. Even more importantly, this will remove pressure off of the fiber optic cable of our nervous system, the spinal cord. This will give our brain the best chance to communicate with the rest of body and effectively heal. If treated in a reasonable time frame the long term consequence will be less than otherwise.
Stiff Neck BJJ: Stacking
Stacking is not a submission and neither is inverting. However, with a short amount of experience in a BJJ practitioner knows the discomfort of a high pressure stack. A good example are the Miyao brothers who compete against monsters with a inversion game plan and positioning.
As the popularity of guard pulling and an inverted game has increased so have the injuries to neck. Due to the vulnerable position an opponent will take full advantage with maximum pressure.
The neck injuries caused by stacking can be acute and/or chronic. This simply means one can occur suddenly with severe pain or slowly, consistently over time. Most jiu jitsu practitioners will be somewhere in between but this position can lead to long term problems and injury.
Things can become miserable after a small slam or receiving Rickson Gracie level pressure. The injury is ultimately a result of the opponents weight putting undue pressure on the cervical spine.
Importance of a Cervical Curve
Repetitive trauma in jiu jitsu will result in inflammation caused by damage to the surrounding tissue. This represents the literal tearing and stretching of soft tissue, including muscles, tendons, and ligaments. Many BJJ practitioners show just how resilient the body can be on a regular basis. However, it is possible they can do better through prevention and preservation of their cervical spine.
Consequently, the long term destruction of the cervical spine is practically guaranteed. For this reason, focusing on the cervical curve is the best interest of almost every person. It just so happens that for every degree of cervical curve lost arthritis, degenerative disc disease, and osteophytes increase. Much of this is the result of not having the roman arch structural support a normal cervical curve provides.
Many chiropractors insist on correcting the cervical curve. This is to help correct acute and chronic conditions that can develop in an inverted game jiu jitsu game.
How to Protect Your Neck in BJJ
- See a chiropractor to have your spine structurally evaluated on X-ray.
- Formulate a plan to address the cervical curve corrections. A chiropractor can determine what type of cervical traction and adjustment method is ideal.
- Speak with a chiropractor or physical therapist to evaluate your neck strength and determine how best to strengthen your neck.
- Consider implementing yoga to help increase muscle strength and increase flexibility.
Fortunately, there is an effective chiropractic adjustment for people with a history of neck compression. This adjustment involves traction of the cervical and thoracic spine in order to correct spinal alignment and disrupt scar tissue. As soon as a chiropractor delivers this type of adjustment there may be symptom relief.
Neck Exercises for Jiu Jitsu
Creating a strong neck can also be a very effective way to prevent a bjj submission or bjj neck crank injury. While jiu jitsu might be enough to eventually get your neck strong enough, here are some bjj neck strengthening exercises to help common brazilian jiu jitsu injuries like a stiff neck and bjj pinched nerve:
- Neck Flexion
- Neck Extensions
- Shoulder Shrugs
- Neck lateral bends
As mentioned earlier, yoga is a superior low impact exercise that can help you strengthen your neck for BJJ. Done a number of times per week, Yoga is a one of the best ways to prevent a stuff neck and implement jiu jitsu neck stretches.
Brazilian Jiu Jitsu Neck Injury: Conclusion
As shown above, there is strong possibility of suffering a neck injury if you train in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. As a result, it should now be clear just how important proper preparation and prevention can be . Therefore, Brazilian Jiu Jitsu players & grapplers may want to discuss this with a chiropractor to have their necks evaluated.