Martial Arts and Children's Health

When it comes to injuries like concussion, martial arts appear to be relatively safe for kids compared to football and ice hockey, though the specific program and even individual instructors can factor into the equation.

If you’ve noticed dojos and tae kwon do studios popping up in strip malls and vacant spaces, you’re probably not alone. Participation in martial arts has grown rapidly in the last decade or so, with an estimated 8 million Americans currently involved, including many children.

Fans of disciplines such as karate and tae kwon do cite a number of potential benefits, including strength, coordination, and balance, flexibility as well as certain intangibles like respect and discipline.

And there are a growing number of children with long-term challenges who are learning how to “punch back at their helplessness” by participating in martial arts.

Recognizing these benefits, there are still some concerns about risks and safety in children, as well as potentially a few myths to debunk.

Is Martial Arts Safe for My Child?

Concussions, or mild traumatic brain injuries, have received intense media attention -- for good reason. Growing evidence suggests that repetitive concussions -- or even sub-concussions, mild brain injuries that can’t be diagnosed clinically -- can occasionally produce long-term problems with thinking, behavior, and psychiatric problems.

The type of martial art and the philosophy of the instructors may be key factors when it comes safety and injuries. Traditional martial arts that have been studied include Shotokan karate, tae kwon do, aikido, and Kung Fu.

These disciplines seem to be relatively safe in regard to concussions – especially as compared to contact sports such as ice hockey and football.

According to one survey of 263 youth and adults training over the span of a year, there was only one concussion in the entire study. It occurred in a  black belt, a female student with 15 years of experience in Shotokan karate.

Still, no sport is without risk, and sprains, strains, and jammed fingers should be expected in at least some participants.

In the above study, over the course of a year, the injury rates varied depending on the martial art style. These were self-reported injuries that required at least some time off, and included things like being kicked in the groin. Some 59 percent of students in tae kwon do reported injuries of this type; 51 percent in aikido; 38 percent in kung fu, 30 percent in Shotokan karate; and only 14 percent in tai chi. This study also found that younger participants, those under 18 years of age, were at much lower risk of injury than adults.

Mixed Martial Arts and Combat

Depending on what is meant by "mixed martial arts," it could be a very different animal from the safety perspective. Mixed martial arts combine a variety of combative techniques drawing on disciplines such as judo, Brazilian jiu-jitsu, karate and muay thai kickboxing. Competitive mixed martial arts, once called human cockfighting, has been banned in the state of New York and continues to generate controversy.

The controversy is in part due to reports that rates of KOs and TKOs -- brain injuries with loss of consciousness -- are higher than in other combative and contact sports.

On the other side of the argument, industry leaders have been attempting to make the sport safer, and criticisms have been raised about the methods used to determine risk and to make comparisons to other contact sports. The American Academy of Pediatrics took a stance against combat sports back in 2011.

Kids Kicking Cancer

Perhaps no group shows the importance of specific studios and training practices better than “Kids Kicking Cancer.” This program was started a Rabbi who is also a black belt in choi kwang do and Clinical Assistant Professor at the Department of Pediatrics, Wayne State School of Medicine.

Rabbi Goldberg lost his oldest child to leukemia at the age of 2, and wanted to help other children with the disease, reports the Times of Israel. According to the Times, Goldberg realized that martial arts could help kids cope with pain as well as feel less passive and helpless. In the 15 years since he founded the program, it has expanded to more than 20 hospitals in North America, 15 in Italy and five in Israel. In 2014, Rabbi Goldberg was named one of ten “CNN heroes.” Despite the word “cancer” in the program’s name, Kids Kicking Cancer helps children with any chronic or life-threatening illness, according to the Times.


Zetaruk M, Violán M, Zurakowski D, et al.  Injuries in martial arts: a comparison of five styles. Br J Sports Med 2005;39:29-33.

McKee AC, Daneshvar DH, Alvarez VE, Stein TD. The neuropathology of sport. Acta neuropathologica. 2014;127(1):29-51. Karate Kids: The Benefits of Martial Arts.

Times of Israel. How martial arts help kids with cancer kick the pain.

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