Martial Arts and Pain

Copyright and courtesy of Duncan Grisby 2009

Practicing martial arts, as well as any other physical activity and sport, can cause pain due to accidents or simple practice: this post discusses some of the aspects of pain and my view of dealing with it.

What is pain?

Wikipedia states that:

Pain is the unpleasant feeling common to such experiences as stubbing a toe, burning a finger, putting iodine on a cut, and bumping the “funny bone“.[1] The International Association for the Study of Pain defines pain as “an unpleasant sensory and emotional experience associated with actual or potential tissue damage, or described in terms of such damage”.[2]

Pain motivates us to withdraw from damaging or potentially damaging situations, protect the damaged body part while it heals, and avoid those situations in the future.[3] It is initiated by stimulation of nociceptors in the peripheral nervous system, or by damage to or malfunction of the peripheral or central nervous systems.[4] Most pain resolves promptly once the painful stimulus is removed and the body has healed, but sometimes pain persists despite removal of the stimulus and apparent healing of the body; and sometimes pain arises in the absence of any detectable stimulus, damage or pathology…

Different people will have different feelings of pain corresponding to the same stimulus.  At the same time tolerance to pain is a very subjective thing.

Low pain threshold

To some extend having a low tolerance to pain has one advantage: people with low pain threshold will usually try to reduce or avoid pain, causing them to be more careful then others about everything.  That could be not ideal for a martial artist.  Low tolerance can in fact be very annoying because any little impact or strike can cause extreme discomfort therefore incapacitating fighters to continue their actions; worse it can trigger irrational reactions and limiting their ability to fight with a clear mind.

High pain threshold

At the opposite side of the spectrum people with high tolerance to pain will care less about being hit: this can sometimes cause them to be more exposed to danger and more likely of being involved in more serious accidents.  A high pain threshold can be at the same time a serious competitive advantage for full contact fighters: being able to continue fighting despite pain can make the difference between winning and loosing a fight.

Conditioning

Some martial arts encourage the practice of specific conditioning exercises that allow students to improve their resistance to pain and how to deal with it.  From a physiological point of view repetitive strikes to any body parts are far from useful; while extensive and repetitive bruises on the body and limbs can be un aesthetical, internal organs and the head can suffer permanent damages when they receive repetitive strikes.

I usually encourage my students to avoid, to the best of their ability, hits in the head while I am obviously aware it can be difficult while sparring.  To anyone who states that to be a good martial artist (or fighter) you need to be able to receive any kind of strike without showing pain I would answer in two ways:

  • A good martial artist should be good at blocking or avoiding strikes. Yes, in the case a strike goes through she will get on with life and try to block better next time.
  • There is a large number of (ex) boxers with permanent brain damages, mostly caused by repetitive head strikes: it’s just a simple demonstration that you just cannot train the brain to absorb these impacts.

Personally I don’t really mind getting occasionally bruised but I can usually avoid most damages by blocking effectively my opponents’ attacks using my hands protected by gloves rather than absorbing those attacks on the arms.

Redirecting pain?

A few weeks ago I took part to a Silat seminar: the master running it spent a significant part of the training explaining that conditioning is very important for their style and he insisted that pain should be ignored and absorbed and the energy generated should be redirected toward the opponent to generate more powerful attacks: I am in total disagreement with this philosophy because I believe that a martial artist will fight better when relaxed rather than angry.  Anger can cause irrational reactions and, limiting mental flexibility, reduces the chances of coping with a number of situations.

Conclusions

Pain is a fact of life and, if you are involved in an energetic activity like a contact sport or a martial art, can be a normal day to day companion.  While practitioners of martial arts should try their best to avoid getting injured they should also acknowledge the fact that it’s a fact of life and it should be dealt with, without becoming too familiar with it.