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.

6 thoughts on “Martial Arts and Pain

  1. I believe that there are two situation-based ways of looking at pain; sport and traditional. Let me explain.

    In the sport sense, you should never push your body through unnecessary pain. It’s just not worth it. The sport side of martial arts is about competition. It is not a life-and-death situation.

    In the traditional sense, you have to think of your art as self defense. If you get hurt during an altercation that could cost you your life, pain is the last thing you need to think about. Your priority is dealing with the situation in the best way possible at the time.

    I study at a traditional Tae Kwon Do school under a master that fought in hand-to-hand combat without a weapon during the Vietnam war. In our do jang, we don’t push ourselves through unnecessary pain while training but we’re also taught that there are times when pain is far less important than what’s at stake in the fight.

    Life rarely matches the controlled and sometimes sterile environment encountered during our training or in competitions.

  2. @Michael your comment is highly appreciated and it points out an interesting aspect that I feel should be stressed a bit more. As I mentioned in the post in a sport situation (bout, competition) having good pain tolerance can make the difference between winning or loosing. As you point out in a self defence situation it can be the difference between life and death.

    So while I would not encourage people to go through “unnecessary” pain I would suggest that being caught unprepared by pain could incapacitate them from carry on fighting and loose whatever fight they are in.

  3. Hi Massimo,

    I’d like to see you write more. I enjoy your writing. Some of your topics, like this one, show that there are two versions of most martial arts and the approach to and extent used of each can be very different.

    Personally, I prefer the traditional style of the martial arts but that doesn’t mean that I’ll bypass the sport side of it. I thoroughly enjoy the “confrontation” in the sport because it gives me a chance to apply much of what I’ve learned. The simplest and shared confrontational form of the martial art, sparring, provides reinforcement for the teachings and hard work. That is priceless.

    Preferring the traditional form of the art by no means precludes me from enjoying the sport of it.

    Michael

  4. This is an exceptional piece of writing thank you very much for this information, another very good piece of article. Pain is literally painful but I think every good fighter needs it to strengthen its tolerance and to be motivated more to do best.

  5. Hi! I train the most rraditional form of Ninjutsu, including all the deadly techniques. Our Sensei teaches us to be able to keep going and to survive, even if one of our legs would be cut off, so to speak. The blocks that we practise (bone to bone) are super painful. We also do very hard condition training. I am a female and I know that all the females in the group have more trouble in dealing with pain. I think guys are conditioned to accept it as part of being masculine and for women and young boys, it can be very emotionally painful as well. We instinctively want to protect ourselves. I am a lightweight, 5’5″ and a blondish redhead. The latter is important to note, as it’s actually proven that redheads are more sensitive to pain! Plus, I train with very tall and strong males who are way above my level. Sometimes I have many bruises and bumps, but I have never had a severe injury apart from a broken toe. My Sensei now wants me to train with the top male student in his dojo, cause I want to get to the next level and do my exam. He tells me not to whine about the pain. LOL! I am gonna do it, but the funny part is that when someone strong really blocks me hard or hits me in the right spot, it’s only natural to take a few minutes to rub your arm or the painful spot! It’s in fact some form of an injury/ inflammation and it’s very hard when I realize I am voluntarily being ‘abused’ by much stronger, taller males, just so I can be prepared once a bad thing should happen in real life??!!!!? Ha ha but the ‘bad thing (physical pain)’ is something I have to go through bi-weekly… just to be good at it and to learn to be able to fight even after someone attacks me. So what it comes down to, is that I have to endure a lot of pain just so I can not be thrown off or freeze up if this should ever happen in real life. Like if someone would attack me and I was wounded… I am being trained to still be able to respond and win a fight with this hindrance. Because I am a lightweight and a female, it’s much harder for me than for a strong and tall guys (but they have a lot of pain too). My female friend and I get to points where we kind of just want to cry, but we stick it out. I can only imagine what it must be like for boxers and such! It’s very stressful and emotional, to experience physical pain. I also laugh inside, cause I don’t think I will ever get into a real fight… but I do feel this pain every session. My Sensei does not take into account weight class or sex. It’s OK… In reality… this is the truth… a petite female being attacked by a tall and strong male can totally happen. So I should be prepared for that. Guys have it easier though! I have spots on my arms, bruises and bumps that really hurt extra much if someone would touch them. Yet I have to train again soon and do blocks and attacks. Sometimes I wonder why I do this crazy thing, but I do love it. Just wanted to share that. And I agree, that martial arts should not be about agression. It does make me feel good to just suck it up and keep going past the tough moments. Sometimes I think, when we are training hard and feeling pain everywhere… it’s kind of zen to where u are in the moment and have no thoughts other than your pain and exhaustion. Then I notice… after resting… you do get stronger from going past your limitations and challenging yourself to the point of crying. Then you feel like superwoman and get a rush. It can be addictive, which is also what my female friend mentioned. We are not weirdo’s, she is an elementary school teacher and I’m an artist. We just look like normal, feminine women outside of the dojo. It does remind me a little bit of that movie fight club… only we are girls (and girly too). But I honestly think because of my training, I am a lot tougher than a lot of guys! It’s cool!

  6. We DO actually push ourselves through ‘unnessesary pain’ during our training (all the time) and always prepare for a life-and death situation. My Senpai was hit with sticks for his training. He got a very extreme kind of training and is keeping it ‘mild’ for us (he would never hit a female, even with a foam stick lol). I have tried Bujinkan in the States and those people were just like… stroking each other a bit LOL. I had to really hold back with the guys and not hurt them. Also there were some girls in my weight class who were black belts and they were like… half as strong as I am (and equally thin). So that taight me I am glad we train like this. Mainly cause miss cutie black belt won’t be able to defend herself on the street should a predator attack her… even though her technique is perfect and looks graceful. I am not perfect, but am ready to do a lot of damage and ready to do whatever it takes to any attacker. I am ready to strangulate, poke out his eyes, plant a broken glass bottle in his face, make sure he can never have kids, break his neck, elbow, etc. It’s not elegant, but it will work on the street and I am ready. I worry about those females who believe they are ready to defend themselves when I can clearly see they would not stand a chance. I mean who is going to do a perfect Ninjutsu technique on the street? You just do the first thing that comes to mind!! Because of my training, this most likely will be something extreley painful. I don’t train for competition. I train in essence, to be ready to defend myself on the street.

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