At Apex MMA, our goal is to help minimize injuries and keep all our members and coaches safe. This involves ongoing education on injury prevention, recognition, and proper treatment. The shoulder is the second most commonly injured joint in MMA. This article provides an overview of common shoulder injuries and guidance on prevention and rehabilitation.
The shoulder joint sacrifices some stability for an extensive range of motion. This mobility makes it vulnerable to injuries during the varied demands of MMA – from punching and grappling to throwing and falling. Shoulder injuries are painful and can be prolonged to recover from. However, fighters can take steps to protect their shoulders and make full returns after surgery.
The labrum is a ring of cartilage that lines and deepens the socket. It can be pinched or torn when the shoulder twists in an abnormal way. Labral tears cause pain, catching, popping, and joint instability. Extensive tears often require surgery to reattach and stabilize the labrum.
Mechanism: The labrum tears when the arm is driven backwards behind the plane of the body. This commonly occurs while grappling or defending submission attempts.
Risk Factors: Sports requiring overhead motion. Loose joints that allow abnormal shoulder positioning. Poor conditioning of muscles around the joint.
Prevention: Avoid hyperextending the shoulder into vulnerable positions. Maintain strength and flexibility of muscles around the joint to support it. Do not forcefully pull through pain when sparring.
Treatment: Physical therapy to strengthen shoulder muscles. Surgery if large tears or ongoing mechanical symptoms occur. Take time for proper rehabilitation after surgery.
Rotator Cuff Tears
The rotator cuff muscles stabilize the ball within the socket. They can become irritated, leading to tendonitis, or can partially or fully tear off the bone. While minor tears may improve with rest and rehab, large tears often require surgery.
Mechanism: Tendonitis results from overuse. Tears occur when the rotator cuff is overwhelmed by a strong eccentric load.
Risk Factors: Overuse, poor conditioning, inadequate warm-up, anatomy, ageing.
Prevention: Strengthen and balance all shoulder muscles, including the rotator cuff. Do external rotation exercises with resistance bands. Ensure proper form and mechanics during overhead activity.
Treatment: Rest, anti-inflammatories, and physical therapy for tendonitis. Surgery for significant tears, followed by a cautious return to activity to prevent re-tearing repairs.
The shoulder joint can completely dislocate, most often when the arm is externally rotated and pulled forcefully away from the body. This can tear the labrum and ligaments, leading to recurrent instability.
Mechanism: Excessive external rotation and abduction stresses the anterior capsule until it fails.
Risk Factors: Ligament laxity, previous dislocation.
Prevention: Strengthen muscles around the shoulder to keep the joint centred. Be cautious when the arm is at risk positions. Tap early if arm is cranked back.
Treatment: Gentle range of motion after reduction. Surgery may be needed to tighten ligaments or repair labrum tears if repeat dislocations occur.
AC Joint Separation
The acromioclavicular (AC) joint at the top of the shoulder can be sprained or separated by direct blows to the shoulder. Mild sprains heal with rehab, but severe separations may need surgical stabilization.
Mechanism: A direct hit to the top of the shoulder drives the acromion down, tearing the AC ligaments.
Risk Factors: Contact sports, including MMA, previous AC joint injuries.
Prevention: Proper falling technique distributes forces away from AC joint. Strengthen muscles surrounding scapula and upper back. Avoid posting with isolated outstretched hand.
Treatment: Sling for comfort initially. Physical therapy focuses on regaining range of motion and strength. Possible surgical stabilization for high-grade separations.
Returning After Shoulder Surgery
Rehabilitation following shoulder surgery focuses on:
- Gentle early motion to prevent adhesions and stiffness
- Progressive rotator cuff and scapular strengthening
- Correcting any muscle imbalances or weaknesses
- Gradual return to higher demand activities
A prolonged recovery is expected, often around 6 months until full competition readiness. Avoid rushing back to training or fighting before the shoulder has adequately healed.
Long-Term Shoulder Health
While most shoulder injuries heal well, problems can become chronic if not fully rehabilitated. Persistent pain, stiffness, or weakness should prompt evaluation for complications like arthritis, nerve issues, or rotator cuff re-tears. Protect your body so you can have the longest career possible.
Here at Apex MMA, we aim to help our team return safely after shoulder injuries. With proper prevention and rehabilitation, fighters can make strong comebacks from even extensive shoulder damage.