Mixed Martial Arts (or MMA) combines punches, kicks, knees, elbows, ground strikes, chokes, all in a closed cage called an octagon. In summary, MMA is a sort of compilation of several combat sports which, for a novice, may seem more like a settling of scores than a sport carried out within a well-defined framework. This is also the reason why MMA was initially banned in France.

The introduction of more restrictive rules, such as the ban on hitting the ground for beginners, finally allowed the new sport to be authorized in our country from February 2020, and placed under the aegis of the Federation French boxing. Since then, he has enjoyed great popular success.

As the blows are not only focused on the head, the duration of the fights is shorter than in boxing and the gloves used are lighter and mitten-shaped, some athletes have concluded (perhaps a little too much quickly) that they were more protected from concussions (when the brain is subjected to a strong shock and hits against the walls of the skull) than those practicing English boxing.

On discussion forums, it is said that since the hands are less protected than in boxing, the blows to the head are fewer and less violent, to avoid hurting the hand. The area affected at head level is also smaller. Professor Philippe Decq, head of the neurosurgery department at Beaujon hospital, is more cautious on the issue: “There is no scientific study which proves that there are fewer concussions when blows are delivered by smaller gloves.”

The problem of concussions is not specific to combat sports. All sports combined, around 5 million French people are affected by a concussion each year, at least for those declared (which is not necessarily the case in leisure activities). Rugby, American football, ice hockey, classic football and in general anything that generates collisions and/or impacts on the head, with a rapid back and forth movement – producing compression followed by ‘stretching of brain tissue – may be to blame.

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Concussion results in “a sudden and transient dysfunction, with at least one disturbance of consciousness and/or memory and/or an alteration of mental state, sometimes neurological signs (dizziness, convulsions for example)”, reminds Professor Deck. Note that certain signs can also appear later, in the minutes or hours that follow, or even the next day: headaches, attention problems, fatigue, sometimes insomnia, mood disorders.

In the event of a concussion, or suspicion of a concussion, the rule is simple: stop the activity immediately. The sports session is interrupted, at least for the day. There is no question of restarting before all symptoms have normalized. This rest period applies to all sporting disciplines. “There is a real risk in resuming too soon while unrest still persists. The brain is more vulnerable and a new concussion could have tenfold consequences, with more intense symptoms that could last for several days,” warns Professor Decq.

What is the long-term risk? A recent study published in Nature communications in 2023 was carried out on deceased American football players who had donated their brains to science. “Lesions were noted that could be related to the number and intensity of the concussions they had suffered,” explains Professor Decq. “However, it is not possible to say at this time whether it is only the large impacts that count or whether the repetition of a multitude of micro-impacts could also be deleterious. For this reason, the latest international recommendations are to limit the impacts on the brain as much as possible and even more so among young people. You must therefore think carefully before allowing your child or adolescent to join a combat sport that allows intentional contact to the head. »