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UFC among sports leagues grappling with concussion issuePosted on Tue, Mar 22, 2011 at 6:31 am
by IDMA Editor
Four weeks ahead of his second scheduled UFC bout, Jeff Joslin was teaching a jiu-jitsu class in his Hamilton dojo when his grappling partner noticed something wrong.
In this 2006 file photo, Jeff Joslin is seen in a training centre where he prepared for his next UFC bout. Joslin has since bowed out of competition after suffering the effects of what was likely a concussion, his seventh - photo credit Simon Wilson/ THE STAR
Joslin, a black belt in jiu-jitsu, suddenly couldn’t remember basic moves, nor could he focus his attention on students. He struggled through the rest of class but as his mind grew cloudier, he recognized what he was up against.
A concussion, his seventh, likely incurred the previous day in sparring.
While concussions and their long-term effects have been high-profile issues recently for the NFL and NHL, the UFC has managed to avoid headlines about the head injuries its athletes suffer.
That doesn’t mean concussions aren’t a critical issue in mixed martial arts.
While the National Athletic Trainers’ Association found hockey players suffer 6.5 concussions per 1,000 player-games, a separate study by Johns Hopkins University found a much higher concussion rate — 15.4 per 1,000 “exposures” — among mixed martial artists.
The UFC’s concussion management policy includes hospitalizing and suspending every fighter who suffers a knockout, but experts wonder whether further measures are necessary.
And though many fighters recover fully and continue fighting others, the cumulative effects of concussions can end careers.
Joslin pulled out of his proposed bout and spent 18 months battling the depression, fatigue and nausea that accompany severe concussions, hoping one day to feel good enough to fight again. Eventually he realized that once he regained his health he would never want to risk it by fighting again.
“How long was the next (recovery) going to take,” says Joslin, who retired in 2007. “Three years? Five years?”
Wherever mixed martial arts is regulated, safeguards for knockout victims exist.
In Ontario a knockout triggers an automatic 60-day suspension, and even a fighter who wins can be suspended if doctors feel he suffered significant head trauma. That clause is crucial because many fighters who suffer concussions never lose consciousness.
UFC Canada president Tom Wright points out that the UFC adds another layer of precaution.
When a fighter is knocked out in a UFC event he is immediately brought to hospital, where he undergoes either an MRI or a CT scan. In addition to commission-imposed suspensions, the UFC issues a parallel suspension, banning the fighter from contact drills in practice for at least 60 days and from competing for 90 days.
“You do run the risk of concussions but we put in place every precaution we can,” Wright said. “Our athletes’ health and safety is job one.”
Superficially the UFC’s approach to concussion management seems more thorough than the strategies employed in the NFL and NHL, where concussed players often return to action within weeks.
But Dr. Tony Strickland, director of the Sports Concussion Institute in Los Angeles, questions whether the UFC’s policy is comprehensive enough.
“There’s nothing magical about the number of days (in a suspension),” says Strickland, a professor of neuropsychology at UCLA. “You have to intervene and provide treatment.”
He points out that the lingering effects of a concussion are invisible to MRIs and CT scans, and says only close monitoring and thorough neurological testing can determine a player’s cognitive health.
So while the NHL and NFL don’t impose long bans on concussed players, Strickland says mandatory testing from independent doctors gives teams in those leagues a clear picture of when a player is ready to return to action.
Still, the two layers of suspensions along with the UFC’s schedule have helped the organization avoid the concussion-related headlines that have dogged other sports recently.
Unlike hockey and football players who sit out games with concussions, most UFC fighters don’t miss bouts due to concussions because they only compete two or three times a year, giving them plenty of recovery time after knockouts.
And even if back-to-back bouts are scheduled, the UFC-imposed ban on contact would take precedence.
“In other sports, if there’s been a concussion they clearly don’t wait 60 days for contact to star again,” Wright says.
Nevertheless, a serious enough concussion can postpone a fight or derail a career.
Legendary UFC fighter Chuck Liddell retired last year after being knocked unconscious in three consecutive fights over an 18-month span.
Joslin, meanwhile, is fully recovered and remains immersed in the sport even though he no longer competes. In addition to coaching, he has resumed both grappling and his old fitness regimen.
“I’m back to normal,” he says. “I just don’t get hit in the head anymore.
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