Judo is less dangerous than Soccer!
There, I said it.
Judo is not as dangerous as people think having less injuries than other less physical sports. It just has a bad rep.
We have all been told by someone at some point that sports like Judo are too dangerous, or they say things like, I don’t do Judo because I don’t want to get injured. It has been all too common, even for me as a coach, to hear these statements from people or students. You could say I am used to them because someone, a friend of a friend, or a far-away relative, when doing judo once upon a time injured themselves—and now they passed the warning down through generations, like an urban legend, propagating the fear to step onto the mat. Well, it is true, you can get injured in Judo but it is not as common or as bad as people led you to believe.
On this note, I want to point out that I had a cousin who once broke his right leg in a bicycle accident, and another that tore his rotator cuff when he improperly hit a baseball. We all can get injured doing just about anything, and Judo is no different. However, if there is one thing Judo has, it is plenty of research. Judo is based on movement and proprioception in order to maximize the efficiency of its techniques. This scientific approach implies that Judo is an ever-evolving art willing to challenge its own dogmas and improve upon new knowledge.
Judo Research in sport injuries
The recent studies Injuries in judo: a systematic literature review, Epidemiology of injuries in judo, and On the way to the Tokyo Summer Olympic Games (2020). Prevention of severe head and neck injuries in judo, discussed injury incidents as well as prevention. As a combative sport Judo shows one of the lowest numbers of injuries, and as far as injury incidence, it is lower than that of soccer, hockey, volleyball, and basketball. The vast majority of those injuries occur while standing, and from within that percentage being thrown accounts for the highest percentage of the injuries. The breakdown of injuries is mostly split among the limbs (shoulder, elbow, knee, and hands), and when studying Judo-specific injuries of the knee just about 5.7 percent end in an ACL rupture.
Why do most injuries happen?
Now we know that most injuries occur while standing; why do they happen? The easiest answer is that new students are discouraged by the initial hard and dull breakfall training, and they begin, under new or improper instruction, Judo too soon and too fast.
They move on to throwing techniques without knowing how to fall. I have seen students that have belts other than white (and should know how to fall) still not know how to break the fall properly. In other schools the instructor has them do variations of break falls that are easier to do, but teach improper force dissipation and body kinetics which leads to injuries when thrown—and yet others altogether move on to throw and are told to “throw nice and slow.”
For people that have been doing Judo for a while, we understand that we would rather be thrown fast and perfectly rather than slow and improperly. The pain difference is abysmal even when that sounds counter-intuitive. You don’t do your partner a favor by throwing them nice and slow since that can put their bodies in positions prone to injuries. Performing a Judo technique like this changes the biomechanics of the throw and now Tori has changed the way Uke needs to break the fall, often rolling onto his side causing rib, ankle, acromioclavicular or scapulohumeral injuries on uke. We are assuming in this example that Uke knows how to fall perfectly. If both are beginners then Tori will throw improperly just as Uke will fall improperly, increasing the chances for injuries.
When they happen they are often limb injuries
Elbow injuries are also caused by improper breakfall and overly defensive, positions where the arm ends in an arm-bar like position while thrown, or they land onto their arm when trying to defend the throw by either being too competitive or being afraid of being thrown—causing dislocation or MCL injuries.
Ankle sprains are also very common. However, there is a very low risk of having an injury, and one that will lead to time loss (Pocecco E, Ruedl G, Stankovic N, et.). With the low incidence of injury, it has always seemed weird to me that most people are hesitant about trying Judo based on the stories about people being injured at some dojo or in some judo practice.
Lack of practice and experience is a pivotal factor for injury prevention in Judo, and lower belt or beginner Judokas are at the highest risk of injuries. As a rule of thumb, I always tell my students to take extra care of my white belts. As beginner students advance from white to yellow belt they have proven to know and apply breakfall techniques perfectly. When they do so, they can be allowed to be thrown freely as they will fall without getting hurt. There will also be less hesitation or fear over falling, allowing for a better throw and thus, a better break fall in Judo practice.
Moreover, and on the point of lowering the incidence of injuries in Judo, it is also important that the instructor has to be qualified to teach Judo, and aware of current methods of training and injury prevention/treatment in order to maximize the lowest incidence of injuries.
So yes, you can get injured in Judo. And yes, maybe your cousin’s friend’s brother-in-law did hurt himself in some Judo practice once upon a time, or maybe he was injured due to a lack of proper training and learning of the basics of falling. Whichever is the case, that shouldn’t stop you from coming into Judo and expand your BJJ or wrestling repertoire. As you move to competitions or keep advancing in your training, Judo will come to play an important part of your BJJ practice.
So what are you waiting for? Come practice one of the lowest injury incidence sports!
For Further Reading:
Akoto R, Lambert C, Balke M, et al Epidemiology of injuries in judo: a cross-sectional survey of severe injuries based on time loss and reduction in sporting level Br J Sports Med Published Online First: 26 April 2017. doi: 10.1136/bjsports-2016-096849
Kamitani T, Malliaropoulos NG, Omiya M, et al On the way to the Tokyo Summer Olympic Games (2020). Prevention of severe head and neck injuries in judo: it’s time for action Br J Sports Med Published Online First: 17 August 2017. doi: 10.1136/bjsports-2017-097681
Kujala Urho M, Taimela Simo, Antti-Poika Ilkka, Orava Sakari, Tuominen Risto, Myllynen Pertti et al. Acute injuries in soccer, ice hockey, volleyball, basketball, judo, and karate: analysis of national registry data BMJ 1995; 311 :1465
Pierantozzi E, Muroni R . Judo high level competitions injuries. Medit J Musc Surv 2009;17:26–9