Over 6.5 million children and adolescents participate in martial arts in the United States. Whether they do it for self-defense, exercise or personal growth, these activities can help them in more than just physical ways. Martial arts are believed to help kids with self-esteem, respect and even mental function.
How risky is participating in martial arts – like karate, taekwondo and judo – for kids? A recent statement from the American Academy of Pediatrics’ Council on Sports Medicine and Fitness looked at injury data and offered some conclusions. One challenge with these activities is that much of the published research focuses on adult participants.
Like many youth sports, the risk for overuse injury exists in martial arts. One study showed that kids under age 18 who trained more than three hours per week had an increased risk of injuries overall. For every two extra hours they trained, their risk of injury doubled.
Injury rates are generally lower in karate than other forms of martial arts, likely because much of karate is noncontact. Most karate injuries involve the lower extremities. Injuries occur from kicking or being kicked.
Taekwondo has a higher rate of injuries than many other forms of martial arts. One study showed the risk of injury was three times greater than karate, with a much higher risk of multiple injuries. Almost one-third of all injuries (adults and kids) required more than a one week absence from training. The vast majority of injuries occurred in the foot or lower leg. About 5% of injuries were to the head.
Because Judo involves throws, flips and takedowns, it has a higher rate of injuries to the upper extremity. Injuries to the shoulder, elbow, wrist, hand and fingers are common. Kids in judo suffer more shoulder, upper arm and neck injuries than kids in karate or taekwondo.
Take home points about martial arts injuries
We need much more data, especially at the youth level, to come up with injury prevention strategies for martial arts. Kids should participate in karate, judo, taekwondo or other martial arts disciplines led by instructors with proper training. Instructors should not push the children beyond what they are capable of at that age or with their body composition. They should also be taught not to use excessive force or contact their opponents illegally. They should be taught blocking techniques to decrease the risk of head injuries.
Having said that, for over 6 million in this country, martial arts not only provides physical health benefits but emotional, social and mental benefits as well.
Demorest RA, Koutures C; Council on Sports Medicine and Fitness. Youth Participation and Injury Risk in Martial Arts. Pediatrics. 2016 Dec;138(6).