British Columbia

B.C. martial artists fight to reduce concussion risk for combat athletes

The growing body of research looking at the causal link between CTE and collision sports has ignited calls for safer training in combat sports. Advocates in B.C. have been campaigning gyms, athletic commissions and promoters to raise awareness.

Causal link between CTE and collision sports ignites calls for athletes to train safely

Fighter Greg Lamothe has his hand raised after winning a kickboxing fight. (Martial Arts Unlimited)

In his last fight, kickboxer Greg Lamothe took a shin to the head. The strike sent him down to the canvas, where he sat for seven seconds before getting back to his feet — and rallying to win the fight.

The fighter and coach says his durability may be a blessing in the ring — but he knows it's not without long-term risks.

"I've been knocked on my butt a few times. I've never been out cold," he told CBC News. "But that doesn't mean you got away with it." 

Coaches like Lamothe are trying to raise awareness within the world of combat sports, where researchers say concussion knowledge is lacking. A 2020 study published in The Physician and Sportsmedicine found that less than six per cent of combat sports coaches "recognized the level of traumatic brain injury a concussion represents."

Lamothe, 39, has been training in combat sports since he was a teenager and, over the years, has become increasingly familiar with the long-term risks of repeat strikes to the head, his interest piqued by books like Concussion that have highlighted the troubling relationship between sport and brain injury.

Researchers have long theorized about a causal link between chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) or degenerative brain disease and repeat blows to the head.

Historically, major contact sports leagues have downplayed the risks, but the tide seems to be turning. In November, the U.S. National Institute of Health (NIH) made the landmark acknowledgement of a causal link between physical blows to the head and CTE.

UFC fighter Kamaru Usman is shown after losing his welterweight title match against Leon Edwards in Salt Lake City on Saturday. (Francisco Kjolseth/The Associated Press)

Brain Injury Canada says CTE is associated with disruptions to memories and thought processing alongside changes in personality, such as aggression and impulsivity. Eventually, people with advanced CTE develop dementia. Currently, it can only be diagnosed post-mortem.

Lamothe, a kickboxer and martial arts gym owner, is in the educated minority and is the first to admit he's one heavy blow away from hanging up his gloves for good. It's a mindset he tries to instill in the students that walk into his Victoria gym Martial Arts Unlimited.

"There's risk in the ring," he told CBC News. "But I think the major risk occurs in the gym, with poor sparring culture, with people trying to prove how tough they are ... sparring is a drill, but for some people, it turns into a fight."

Training safely

B.C.-based lawyer and Fighting Foundation director Erik Magraken is among those pushing coaches, event promoters and regulators across the globe to educate competitors on the risks.

"It sounds ugly to say, but brain injury and combat sports go hand in hand, and it's worth being blunt about it," said Magraken. "When you're blunt about it, people understand it and do better."

Coaches at Martial Arts Unlimited have adopted concussion protocols in hopes of reducing health risks. (Martial Arts Unlimited)

Magraken and Lamothe say the biggest cultural shift needs to happen inside gyms and training centres, where the majority of head trauma during a competitor's career takes place.

"One thing all gyms need to do is understand concussions and have a concussion protocol in place where students who have concussive injuries remove themselves from sport, and then they return safely," said Magraken.

WATCH: Scientist discusses how concussions can change the brain:

How do concussions affect the brain?

3 years ago
Duration 3:22
Neuroscientist Naznin Virji-Babul explains the science behind concussions and why they can be so dangerous.

"The less you get hit in the head, the better it is, the safer it is. When coaches understand this, and they expose them to fewer and less severe head impacts, that leads to a better long-term outcome for their students."

For Lamothe, that has meant ensuring sparing sessions focus on light contact and monitoring students and competitors who may take a heavy strike in the gym.

"If they get buzzed, that's it for the night and maybe even for the week," said Lamothe. "Then we're going to start looking for those [concussion] symptoms ... and if you display any of those, you're at least a week out, and you move to our return-to-play protocol."

The Fight Foundation has also made posters available for gyms to help inform athletes about the signs and symptoms of concussions.

The Fighting Foundation has put together these posters for gyms to adopt so fighters can understand concussion symptoms and CTE risk. (Fighting Foundation)

Global campaign

Magraken's foundation has successfully lobbied B.C.'s athletic commission to promote concussion awareness. The safety advocate even convinced one of Thailand's biggest mixed martial arts promoters to air a concussion awareness segment featuring UFC fighters on its live broadcast.

The foundation is partnered with the Association of Ringside Physicians to urge major promoters, like the UFC, alongside athletic commissions across North America, to do the same.

Magraken says the ultimate goal is to ensure fighters make it to the end of their careers with minimal sacrifice to their long-term health.

"We'll get it done. I'm persistent, so we're going to just keep knocking on the doors, and we'll bring this messaging to everyone in the community."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Jon Hernandez

Video Journalist

Jon Hernandez is an award-winning multimedia journalist from Vancouver, British Columbia. His reporting has explored mass international migration in Chile, controversial logging practices in British Columbia, and the global HIV/AIDS epidemic. Follow Jon Hernandez on Twitter:

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