I have the onset of rheumatoid arthritis in one of my elbows. My other arm is fine and everything else is fine. What martial arts could I practise without excessive strain on the elbows?

EDIT: The specialist has told me to do whatever I want. But if (be it any type of activity) causes me pain of inflammation, stop immediately)

The one that interests me most is Ju-Jitsu but I know there are quite a few twists. I was also considering Judo. I wonder what people's thoughts were on these two?

My aims, is to build my self confidence mainly and have fun. I don't have ambitions to be a professional or compete in top competitions.

The ones I'm ruling out immediately are Karate, kick boxing, because of the velocity of the punch that would be needed and also the training I believe involves a lot of push up s which I can't really do.= without strain.

  • 1
    Hi Nick and welcome to the site. I have edited your question slightly to make it a little more focused. Let me know if I have dramatically changed your meaning. Commented Mar 3, 2014 at 11:15

6 Answers 6


Don't choose an art, choose a school.

I'm suffering from arthritis in my knees and medial epicondlyitis (a temporary condition in my elbow which gives me some understanding of your plight). I practice Tai chi and Aikido; the style of aikido I practice (Tomiki) borrows heavily from Judo. My sister was an Olympic level Kareteka until she injured her elbow; she switched schools because her senior teacher wouldn't permit her to adapt her training to the injury.

  • Make sure the school respects injuries. My primary school is probably all over 30, and most of us are over 50. Injuries happen, and if we want to keep training with one another we have to learn to respect those injuries. We've dismissed students for failing to respect injuries. Look for a school with older students, and teachers who are used to teaching older students.

  • Many schools will use tape (duct tape or red tape) to indicate an injury; training partners should ask about the tape if the joint is involved in the technique you're practicing.

  • Adapt your training. Because my elbow is munged up, I've been practicing all the techniques on the reverse side - Some of the techniques get more complicated in reverse, but my training partners have been enthusiastic about using the complexity as a way to test our understanding. (all techniques should be practiced on both sides as a normal event, but we happen to be working on a kata which is asymmetrical for reasons that are not really relevant to your question).

  • Tap out. Protect that joint. When the technique puts any pressure on my joint I tap out before there is a problem. At the moment I have a glass elbow. If there is any doubt as to whether the technique is effective, we switch sides and do it on my stronger elbow. My job as Uke is not to test my partner's effectiveness, it is to react correctly, and tapping out fast is reacting correctly. That is a general rule; there are exceptions, but they can be accomodated

  • Don't do the dangerous stuff. There are techniques I can no longer do because the arthritis in my knees make me weaker in certain postures. When we do kneeling work, I either bow out, or do the technique standing up. My temporary injury to my elbow makes push hands dangerous, so I've had to take six weeks off. I still perform and practice Tai Chi, but push hands is the wrong thing for me right now. Might not be a problem for you under the conditions you describe. There are other techniques that I refuse to do because if my knee were to give out, there are situations where it might injure my partner. (my knee folded during shihonage once and nearly separated my partner's shoulder. I do shihonage differently now).

  • Get a second medical opinion. I say this for two reasons:

    • Most of the aikdoka I work with share an orthopod - because he used to be one of us, and he knows exactly what locks are dangerous. Different doctors have different levels of familiarity with martial arts. An adequate answer from a GP is adequate, but a second opinion from a doctor/martial artist might open whole new worlds of possibility
    • Most chronic injuries can be partially compensated through some form of physical therapy. I can compensate for my elbow by strengthening the muscles and relying less on the damaged tendons. I can compensate for the knee by making sure that the muscles are strong enough to bear additional strain. Check with the doctor to see if you can design a program of stretches and exercises that will maximize your participation and minimize the chance that you'll exacerbate an injury.

The most important tip I'll give you

For Tomiki Aikido, the promotion to second degree black belt involves a set of kneeling techniques. I can't do kneeling techniques, and when I try, the effort is embarassing to all concerned. Sensei allowed me to test standing up. The standing techniques teach an entirely different set of lessons, and if I ever reach a teaching rank, I'm going to have to confront that gap in my trainng. But Sensei was willing to work with me to create a demonstration that allowed me to show my mastery of the portion of the art I can show. If the teacher you're working with won't adapt the technique to your limitations, leave. There is no excuse for that. Working through a chronic injury with the risk of doing further harm to your body is bad art, bad martial, bad personal development, bad budo, bad human relations. Failing to adapt to the student is contemptible.

On the flip side, I need to accept that I'll never be the lineage master, and that if/when I teach, I need to address that so that I don't shortchange my students.

Some people will challenge me because they believe that the art isn't pure if it is adapted. With all due respect, that's crap. My teacher's teacher believes that, and although he is a brilliant man, on this count he is wrong. The art is going to be different for a 5' 100lb girl than it is for a 6'1 300 pound man. Different for people with long arms than short arms. Shuhari. But that whole rant is the answer to a different question so I'll shut up now.

** Ask** the teacher how the two of you could work together to achieve your goals. You have realistic goals specified in your question, and any decent teacher should be able to accomodate your limitations.


You should be able to do what you want to do. I do joint locks, I do throws, I do the occasional high flying breakfall (flying breakfalls are actually easier on my knees than low soft breakfalls; but Sensei doesn't like me to do them because he wants me to come back.) Find a school where you can achieve your goals.

  • +1, clearly better phrased than my attempt at saying the same thing. Commented Mar 5, 2014 at 8:07
  • As a side note, Tomiki really hated the fact that some people called his style by his name. He named the style shodokan. Commented Mar 5, 2014 at 8:08
  • Yes, and it bugs me a little bit to ignore Tomiki's preference, but language is what it is, not what we want it to be. "Shodokan aikido" is a rare term in the USA.
    – MCW
    Commented Mar 5, 2014 at 15:29
  • Wish I could upvote again for the quote "If the teacher you're working with won't adapt the technique to your limitations, leave." The only thing I would add to this is you have to find out what is actually a physical limitation and what is only a mental limitation. Commented Mar 5, 2014 at 17:11
  • Love the tip about tape to indicate an injury - never come across that!
    – Mike P
    Commented Aug 1, 2016 at 15:02

Any martial art should be fine as long as you (and whoever is training with you) are careful with your elbow. Any good teacher should (read: will) accommodate you and not put excessive pressure on your bad elbow.

If you were planning to compete in either amateur or professional circles, I would ask for medical advice as you are likely to get your elbow strained. However, this should not bare you for any style that hold competitions with the above caveat.

For example: Aikido has a lot of elbow techniques but those can be done safely or missed. Muay Thai has a lot of elbow strikes but those can be done safely or at very low power so not to acerbate your injury.

Clearly, monitoring the state of your elbow will be critical whatever art you chose.


There are a great many martial arts that would be good for someone with rheumatoid arthritis.

I would recommend Tai Chi or some other internal martial art like BaGua specifically for rheumatoid arthritis. I am not sure it would make the arthritis any better (it might), but there is very little emphasis on concussive force in the internal arts, at least not of the high impact variety seen in hard striking arts like Karate and TKD. More specifically, strikes are not "thrown" in the internal arts so much as "placed", if that makes sense. A Tai Chi punch will not wrench your elbow like a Karate or Boxing style punch might.

I take it that since you mention Judo and Juijitsu, you are interested in grappling and throwing. Tai Chi is mainly a grappling style, even if the way it approaches grappling is more subtle than you may prefer. Now, the question is if you can get behind the idea of using internal structure rather than external force. Some people like external styles better, and I can certainly see why.

Don't necessarily rule out Karate, TKD, etc... While these are hard striking arts, some schools teach them in less concussive ways that would be amenable to your requirements.


Depending on how old you are*, you may also want to consider Taekwondo, especially WTF (Olympic) Taekwondo. While it does teach arm and hand techniques, the art focuses mainly on kicks. You could arguably become world champion even if you don't have arms (a bit of an exaggeration, but not by much). punches are few and far between. See for yourself. Judo and Jiu Jitsu is going to put strain on your elbow. There's no way around it. It would arguably be better to take up Karate before one of the grappling arts. At least in Karate you can adapt your fighting style to compensate for a bad elbow (or knee or whatever), but in grappling it's much more difficult. Grappling arts will also have you do lots of drills where you are grabbing and pulling on clothing and arms/legs and you'll start feeling that elbow very quickly.

*Nothing stops you from taking up TKD when you're 30 or even 40, but you'll need to be flexible from the start at that age. You're going to be kicking at the other guy's head a lot and flexibility training is tough at that age if you don't have a good foundation to begin with.

  • I am 34 and not very flexible at all. I'm also unsure whether I would enjoy being kicked in the head
    – Nick
    Commented Mar 3, 2014 at 13:38
  • The trick is to kick the other guy in the head first ;) Commented Mar 3, 2014 at 13:59
  • :) What about Wing Chun?
    – Nick
    Commented Mar 3, 2014 at 14:06
  • Wouldn't recommend it as it puts a LOT of strain on your elbows. You'll be doing lots of backfists and short, snapping punches. Basically any type of small, repetitive, movement is bad news for problem joints. As seen here: youtube.com/watch?v=7zLH3c37QBA Commented Mar 3, 2014 at 14:10
  • Is there anything else other than Taekwondo?
    – Nick
    Commented Mar 3, 2014 at 14:13

Do Brazillian Jiujitsu over Judo. In Judo you will fall a lot from being thrown and you will hit your elbow repeatedly by accident. In BJJ, you will be able to just sit down and not fall on your elbow all day. Just tap really early on anything that attacks that arm, especially at first. Don't worry about tapping to the guys who will see/you tell them your 'weakness' and immediately go 100% focused on it, those guys are jerks anyway.

Remember that you don't have to compete if you don't want to, (which could be bad for your elbow) and in BJJ you don't need a lot of explosiveness or power or pushups etc. Just avoid sprawling too energetic, but I believe you can use your own judgment to see which exercises you could do or not.

  • 1
    Thank you for the response. I should really point out what does aggrevate my elbow which might help others to recommend something.
    – Nick
    Commented Mar 3, 2014 at 16:22
  • Gripping is fine, getting it banged or falling on it is fine. It is essentially the same type of movement as pushing yourself up from a push up which is not ok, or a backhand movement in tennis. Also I cannot have 100% full extension and I could not do a fast punch with that arm, I could only use it to grip or block. I'm not sure if I could withstand twisting and turning because I don't really do that sort of thing day to day
    – Nick
    Commented Mar 3, 2014 at 16:25
  • Good armbars are on the elbow, and work on extending it, so that might be a problem if you get caught in them. A good school would have proper partners for you however. I guess I don't know enough about (your) arthritis to give further advice. I don't think the snappy punches from traditional TKD or Karate are very good for the elbow either, since they lock out your arm, unlike a boxing or thai boxing punch. Commented Mar 3, 2014 at 18:35

I have studied Tai chi at my local library and found that there were many elderly people with challenges similar to yours. We were very fortunate to have a teacher who had studied the art in China and knew the applications (how to use for self-defense). I had stiffness in my shoulders when I started and reaching for objects above my head was a bit difficult. I mentioned this to the instructor in case I might be able to do something, and she showed me a better way of raising my arms over my head by keeping my shoulders "down"; tai chi helped me with my stiffness. I hope this helps. Good Luck to you.


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