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For many people who take up martial arts, self defence is one of the main reasons. However actual cases of physical assault ("violence with injury") as recorded by the police can be relatively rare depending on the region. For example 13 per 1000 people in June 2015 - June 2016 in England and Wales:1

Crime in England and Wales: year ending June 2016 (table 1.a)

Injuries from sport on the other hand are common. For example rugby: 130 per 1000 people in one season (year). BBC report on injuries in sport

So my question is: what is the chance of being injured doing a specific martial art? Say Krav Maga for example (a popular art often chosen for self defence reasons).

Are there any styles where the chances of being injured are actually lower than the chances of being a victim of physical assault?


  1. Prevalance drops to 0.9% when accounting for repeat victimisation (table 1.b).
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Short version: there's no one style, or school which you will find adequate data to make a useful comparison, there are, however, instructors and methods which are safer vs. more dangerous.

Safety as a Goal

The first thing to understand is that what we're talking about is harm reduction. The goal is to reduce injury and harm within reasonable efforts. Part of this is figuring out acceptable risk and acceptable effort.

A basic tenet is understanding that there is a huge difference between minor and serious injuries, and that if your training causes minor injuries but improves your odds of avoiding serious injuries (or death) then it is typically considered a worthwhile tradeoff.

Minor vs. Serious Injuries

Minor injuries are those which typically resolve in a few weeks, and lingering effects are gone in a few months, at the worst, without the need for physical therapy. This includes bruises, most muscle strains, minor sprains, cuts, and the lightest end of concussions.

These are common in any physical activity, and also can be incurred doing normal daily activities, such as lifting something incorrectly, slipping on stairs, or bumping your head while getting something out of the car.

Serious injuries may require months or years of rehabilitation, surgery and may never be "right" again. Joint injuries to the hips and knees, disc or ligament injuries to the spine, heavy concussions, shoulder girdle separations, are the common ones in martial arts training.

These injuries cause lasting problems for the rest of your life, and so, are what you really can't afford to incur during training.

Sorting Data for Martial Arts & Self Defense

Problem #1 - the best studies you'll get will be based on sports training, not self defense training. Sports tend to incur greater rates of injury overall, since they're always pushing the envelope of capacity (in comparison to other forms of training for high-risk work, such as fire fighters or police officers, which requires intensity above a given average but not necessarily the edge of what a person can do.)

Problem #2 - does the given study break out what kind of injuries you are looking at? Most people, faced with a sprain, will seek medical attention (and, if it's happening in a competition, they may be forced to per the rules and insurance requirements of the event itself). Does that get noted as to the type or does it just get piled into "X% of participants needed to go to the hospital"?

So, as you can see, finding good data is very difficult here. Not only that, the biggest difference is in the quality of the instructor you're working with, more than a "style" generally, as to the safety.

For that reason, I usually tell people to talk to students under a given instructor who have trained for 6 months or more, and focus on finding out if anyone has suffered concussions, knee injuries, or back injuries, especially focusing on students who are training to the level you expect to train at ("I do 2 classes a week", "I'm here everyday", etc.). Sometimes a given training regimen is safer for people doing the extra conditioning, sometimes less so if people are over training.

It's also useful to find out if your instructor has any sports medicine and first aid background. The ability to assess how fast to bring someone into certain types of training vs. hold them back to better develop safe skills and/or conditioning to protect against injuries is critical. (See: "Heel Hook Injuries" in many grappling schools as an example of doing it wrong).

Sorting Data for Risk

While it's easy to find national data in most places, what you really want is city or neighborhood level data. In some places you can find crime maps that literally point out what streets or even times crimes happen around you. In some cases, these are easy to avoid ("Pool Hall, 2 am").

The second thing to look at is demographics of who is targeted. Most of the "Rah-Rah Self Defense!" crowd is made up of people who are the lowest risk demographic for actual danger. Again, you'll want to find some way of figuring out what crimes involved serious or minor injuries, if possible - robbery with no injury or "being pushed down" or such aren't really a big problem compared to knife attacks or group beatings.

If you know what kind of risks are most likely, you can tailor your training around it. For example, many countries have few gun attacks because guns are rarely available - in which case knives, sticks and group attacks should make up the bulk of your focus. In places like the US, guns are quite common, and consideration has to be put into that.

Training more risky than attack?

Obviously, any training has risk. The question is whether you're racking up minor injuries which are annoyances but not a serious life impact, or if you're risking permanent injuries which impair your ability to go about life and protect yourself. The former is totally acceptable, while the latter is not.

For some people, self defense is a theoretical exercise - they aren't really at risk, so it's effectively a fun hobby for them. For others, it is a practical question which they are quite at risk, and sometimes even if they aren't attacked directly, having extra capability reduces their stress and worries as they try to live life.

So what can we do to reduce risk in training?

  • Instructors educated in sports medicine and first aid (or have access to someone who is)
  • Utilize high intensity training at appropriate intervals, with safety gear
  • Close assessment of student capabilities - not pushing people too fast or too hard in ways that open themselves up to receiving or creating serious injury

Unfortunately, as I've pointed out, the data is quite shakey and incomplete, there is no standardization in training or assessment of instruction quality. You'll need to do local research and interviews and see whether you can find people with serious injuries or not.

  • What do you mean by safety gear? Are we talking light MMA gloves or full suits of body armour? – Huw Evans Jan 16 '17 at 17:35
  • Safety gear appropriate to the level of force you are training with. That may be mouthguards, head gear and gloves, that may be more if you're using weapons. – Bankuei Jan 16 '17 at 18:14
  • youtube.com/watch?v=K9wk2x_XCNQ Are you sure that's enough? – Huw Evans Jan 16 '17 at 18:22
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    1) I've already noted in my answer that sports have higher injury rates, so a video showing sports injuries? 2) Please point out where, "must exclude all possibility of any injury" is a requirement of your question, OR, something I claimed would happen as opposed to a goal, in my answer? Shifting goalposts is not honest engagement. – Bankuei Jan 16 '17 at 18:35
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    These are people wearing "mouth-guards head gear and gloves" and not using weapons. Yet injuries are happening. Your answer is good, I'm just calling into question the idea that high intensity training will reduce risk if safety gear is used. – Huw Evans Jan 16 '17 at 18:42
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Even the flippant, non-contact, self-defense training of running carries serious risks of injury. Injury rates for runners in a year are estimated to be >30%. See the abstracts of:

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    Those are for long distance running. Not for a short sprint you might use to get away from an attack. Good point though. – Huw Evans Jan 15 '17 at 14:40
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I'd like to know just what people are calling "injuries". Maybe it's just because I'm in an overly polite Midwestern area where people like each other and don't actually want to go full contact on each other during class, but in 30 years of ITF Taekwondo, I've seen one case of broken ribs, one fractured forearm from a kick, and one bad concussion from a guy tripping and hitting his head on the wall. Admittedly, we don't punch to the face, but where there are 3 or 4 rounds of sparring each class. Maybe the various types of karate around are more hard-core than we are, but there are definitely guys in class that you wouldn't want to be in a real fight with.

Edit: I don't do my grandmaster's Hapkido classes, so I didn't think of it right away, but there was a guy who got his shoulder separated there, too.

In any case, in class you can be kicked in the head, or get a very painful shin-to-shin contact, or in imagined harder-core classes have painful punches. If you're in a real street fight, you can die, get a fractured jaw or orbital bone, get gang-stomped, or get stabbed or even shot. I don't hang around places where this is at all likely, myself, and don't know why others do. But basic awareness of your surroundings, basic fitness to fight or run, the training to throw a few basic punches and kicks, and the gradual loss of fear of getting hit, can of course be of great value for avoiding a fight, or avoiding getting hurt if a confrontation arises.

So it seems to me that we're comparing apple-y bruises and crunched toes with orangey injuries from muggings and assaults.

  • The most common injuries are strains, sprains, and the like. – Sean Duggan Sep 26 at 16:04
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    I agree, in which case I think we're comparing apple-y strains & bruises to orangey mugging/assault injuries. Also, Ukemi's answer mentions "major injuries"... !? – Amorphous Blob Sep 26 at 17:11
  • What makes you think that A) injuries are more sever outside the class and B) outside the class means the street? As I understand it most of the assaults reported are Domestic Violence and the like. And then there's gang violence... who knows where that happens. – Huw Evans Sep 26 at 20:04
  • Inside the class, people aren't trying to injure you, hence injuries are relatively minor compared to actual attempts to inflict grievous bodily harm. Outside the class, I was using the term "street" loosely for muggings or bar assaults, but yes, domestic violence occurs a lot more often. About gang violence, where would it occur if not in public? And you wouldn't be a target of that unless you're involved in illegal activity or a bystander with bad luck to get caught in a brawl (assuming they would even brawl rather than shooting). – Amorphous Blob Sep 26 at 20:09
  • That is a plausible way for things to be.. But you don't know that that's true. This question is in any case about frequency of injury and is valid regardless of severity. I created a separate question to investigate the severity of injuries from assault and from martial arts training. Perhaps if you did some research you could help answer that. – Huw Evans Sep 29 at 15:14
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This Study Shows values for Judo and Boxing in terms of man hours. If someone is training say 4 hours a week.

This would be 4*52=204 hours a year.

1.4*204 hours *1000 people/10,000 people hours = 28.56 injuries for every 1000 people for boxing

OR for Judo: 1.6*204 hours *1000 people/10,000 people hours = 32.64 injuries for every 1000 people.

IE. you are about twice as likely to get injured if you do 4 hours of judo or boxing each week as you are to suffer an injury from an assault if you are the average member of the public.

(and these injuries are 100% likely to be serious enough to need medical attention according to this study)

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The following study compared injury rates between 5 different martial arts (Shotokan karate, Olympic style tae kwon do, aikido, kung fu, and tai chi). Risk of injury in those studied may be drastically different depending on style, age, and length of training (but not gender):

CONCLUSIONS

There is a threefold greater risk of injury in tae kwon do than in Shotokan karate.

Injury rates and types of injury in Shotokan karate and kung fu are similar.

Different martial arts have different distributions of injury by body region.

There are no significant differences in injuries between sexes.

Martial artists under 18 years of age are at significantly lower risk of injury than older athletes.

Athletes ⩾18 years with at least three years of experience are at greatest risk of sustaining major injuries (35%) and multiple injuries (35%).

Athletes <18 years old with <3 years of experience have a low risk of multiple injuries (5%) and an extremely low risk of major injuries (<1%).

  • Awesome! So the more you practice most martial arts the greater the chance of injury each year. And 'major' injuries in learning martial arts long term is about 15 times more likely than the chances of being assaulted. I hope SE can now appreciate that 'self defence' is a really bad reason for learning a martial art. Not that there are not plenty of good reasons... Just that self defence isn't one of them. – Huw Evans Sep 20 at 15:21
  • @HuwEvans for what it's worth I thought this was a good question, I'm not sure why it was so poorly received. I think a lot of the explanations on the meta post could have been incorporated into answers to the original question here. I'm trying to find more info to flesh out this answer, but almost all studies I can find are specific to the efficacy of self defence training for female victims of sexual assault. – ukemi Sep 20 at 15:38

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