Boxing is one of the best ways to get into shape. It combines an exciting and fast-paced cardio workout with explosive upper and lower body power. When you learn how to box you're also learning self-defense techniques that you can take into the real world. There are so many positive reasons to try boxing, with only one major downside: the head injuries that come along with competition.
Head Injuries in Boxing
The discovery of head injuries in boxing goes all the way back to 1928, according to a 2011 paper in Clinics in Sports Medicine. A medical examiner from New Jersey discovered a series of symptoms in about half of the fighters he examined who had long careers.
Technology and science have gotten significantly more advanced since 1928, revealing more and more about what was behind that original discovery. Head injuries have come under greater scrutiny in the past decade since the National Football League started to investigate head injuries in football players.
Boxing is a sport filled with blows to the head. That's why it has been a testing ground for scientists interested in studying head injuries. Many discoveries about head injuries have come from the world of boxing, and many of them are grim.
Professional vs. Amateur Boxers
The initial estimate was that about half of all professional fighters had brain injuries in 1928. Either the sport has gotten more violent or it's easier to detect these injuries, because a 2012 report in PloS One revealed that over 80 percent of Olympic boxers had signs and symptoms of brain injury.
Professional boxers are much more at risk than their amateur counterparts. In professional boxing, athletes wear no protective head gear, fight significantly more rounds and experience harder hits. In a professional match, the goal is to knock you out, not score points.
However, amateur boxers still show some evidence of CTE, chronic traumatic encephalopathy, according to a 2007 study in the British Medical Journal, although it's not nearly as severe or common as in professional boxing.
Head injuries happen when a boxer gets hit in the head. Your brain sits in a pool of protective fluid inside your skull, but doesn't actually touch any of your skull bones.
When a boxer gets hit in the head the brain smacks against the hard skull, causing bruising and damage. If the hit is severe enough it can cause the person to go unconscious for a brief period of time. This is a concussion, or as it's more popularly known in boxing, a knockout.
Only some concussions actually make you go unconscious. Even if they are less severe and the fighter keeps boxing through the head injury, the brain is still getting hurt. These injuries don't totally heal, either. They keep getting worse and the brain deteriorates over time. This is known as CTE. As a boxer with CTE ages their brain will decline much faster than someone who didn't have many head injuries.
Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy
The first signs of CTE are an inability to pay attention, easily losing concentration, trouble remembering things, confusion, dizziness and headaches. As it gets worse the boxer's judgment starts to get worse; he starts to behave erratically, and can even develop early symptoms of Parkinson's disease.
The symptoms can get so bad that they have trouble walking, talking and even hearing. In the end, it looks a lot like full-blown Parkinson's Disease or dementia.
Preventing Head Injury
Being knocked out might seem like the worst thing for head injuries, but it's not. The real problem comes from all of the punches that boxers take to the head that don't knock them out. These are known as sub-concussive blows. They injure the brain slightly but aren't strong enough to force the fighter to stop fighting.
A fighter will only receive one knockout blow during a fight. But if that knock-out doesn't occur, they can receive dozens of brain-battering sub-concussive blows.
The best way to prevent injuries is to minimize time spent in the boxing ring. The fewer hits to the head you have during your life, the better. Amateur boxers are usually safe since they only fight for three rounds. Professional boxers typically have more fights and their rounds are longer, putting them in much more jeopardy for head injuries.
Amateur boxers also wear protective headgear, which can soften blows to the head. This type of protective gear should be worn as often as possible when boxing.
It's important to learn as much as you can about head injuries and the signs of concussions. If you're ever knocked out you should see a medical professional immediately who can diagnose a concussion.
A doctor should also know how to tell when you should retire from boxing altogether. According to an article in Archives of Clinical Neuropsychology, there are two major warning signs. The first is that a concussion lasts longer than normal, and the second is that you are much more susceptible to concussions. When you start to see warning signs of lasting head injury, it might be time to stop fighting.
- Journal of Neuropathology & Experimental Neurology: Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy in Athletes: Progressive Tauopathy After Repetitive Head Injury
- International Journal of Immunopathology and Pharmacology: Direct Hits to the Head during Amateur Boxing is Associated with a Rise in Serum Biomarkers for Brain Injury
- Neurosurgery: Mortality Resulting From Head Injury in Professional Boxing: Case Report
- Alzheimer's Research & Therapy: What boxing tells us about repetitive head trauma and the brain