Typically, when people think of martial arts, they picture Bruce Lee in a room full of mirrors fighting off a bad man with a steel bear claw on his hand. Obviously, that isn’t even close to reality and if you’ve ever stepped foot inside of a martial arts studio you will see that firsthand. I saw it all up close and personal for years, so please allow me to elaborate on the reasons why I will never recommend martial arts to anyone, especially to children with developing joints and bodies or adults with joint troubles.
In September, 2016 I had my 4th foot surgery, which in total was surgery #18. Granted, not all 18 of my surgeries were related to martial arts injuries, but many of them were. Before I begin, in no way am trying to slam martial arts. Truly, I loved what I was doing. I won state championships in my division in 2000 and I won a national competition in my division in 2001. I had the medals. I had a room full of trophies and if you do as well, please don’t take offense. I practiced full time, was getting good and wanted to make it my life career. I visualized myself on the cover of a magazine, or happily teaching others the sport, or even opening my own studio one day. The aspirations were all in place, but I had irreversibly damaged my body forever and I wouldn’t find that out for several years later. After it was too late.
I realize that while not everyone who studies martial arts become injured, many do. I have spoken to so many people who, after years of studying combat techniques, needed a knee replacement, a hip replacement, a shoulder surgery or worse, a wheelchair. Guffaw if you will. Tell me that my techniques weren’t so great or I would have never become injured at all. I’ve heard everything. And while the possibility of bad technique could have been a factor in the beginning, I honed my skills to the point where it wasn’t technique that ruined my body. It was the sport itself coupled with my preexisting hypermobility and the genetic predisposition for osteoarthritis that eventually took me down in the end. Which brings me to children. Their little bodies are still developing when parents decide to put them in karate or taekwondo for sport. Ask any orthopedist or pediatrician about the fragility of a child’s joints and how the constant wrenching/pivoting motions one performs in a single hour of martial arts practice could potentially end in disastrous results. Although I had a true love and passion for the sport, I cannot advocate it anymore.
Taekwondo is primarily a kicking sport. Yes, you learn to punch, but it's mostly kicking (at least in my dojang and our style). When one is first learning the sport one must practice learning to kick. In learning to kick, it is easier to start off with a primary kicking leg; the right leg. What this means is, for much of your practice, at least in the beginning, you will be learning to balance on your left leg, while you kick with your right leg. This is literally practiced hundreds and thousands of times as one trains and what this means for your left leg, the balancing leg, is that it must pivot over and over. When one is a beginner, it is easy to forget to lift up onto the toes and pivot properly during a kick, which results in the left knee becoming wrenched again and again. Same concept applies to the left hip. Even if you do learn to pivot perfectly, chances are that while you were perfecting your craft, you messed up your knee. Most of the time, people don’t even know what they’re doing to their joints until it’s too late. That’s what happened to me. I’m positive that as I worked my way through the colors of belts, I wrenched my joints to maximum capacity and now I’m paying the steep penalties—which I will get to soon enough. And even after you get good at balancing on that left leg and kicking with the right, at some point you must learn to balance on your right leg and kick with the left. All the pivoting principles and wrenching motions are the same. Keep in mind that most young children are not going to understand pivoting. Some will, but most will not. They just want to have fun and play, so they think throwing some kicks around is a great game, but please know that it isn’t.
I trained in the ITF (International Taekwondo Federation) style of TKD. This style is very traditional; old school if you will. It focuses mainly on technique, power and lots of breaking. While WTF (World Taekwondo Federation) style trains mostly for sport as in the Olympics, they focus on speed, agility and sparring. My TKD master was first generation Korean and was strict to the point that sometimes people weren’t even enjoying coming to class anymore. But not me. I wanted the challenge. I wanted to play hard and train harder. I was the only adult female in my DoJang and I loved training with full grown men. We used to joke that anyone outside of the ITF tradition were only doing aerobics in a pretty white suit with a pretty colorful belt (which is absolutely not true, but in the tradition of talking smack…you get the idea). We had a demo team in our school, and as I progressed in my talent, I was urged to join. If you’ve never seen a demo team in action, check this out:
One day in class I was sparring with another member of the demo team. A young, swift and very strong man kicked me in the abdomen with such force that I immediately blacked out and fell straight to the mat. When I woke up, he was kneeling over me, crying his heart out. He really thought he had killed me and I was soaked in his tears as he begged me to wake up. I can remember looking in to his big doe eyes and mentally telling him not to cry, that it was my fault for not blocking the kick, but he was distraught and even moreso by the fact that I was unable to speak right away. Our master dared him to help me up or even see if I was alright. I was carted by another team member to the hospital (who was later punished for helping me) where I had an MRI of my abdomen to check for internal bleeding. When I returned a few days later, I learned the young man was so traumatized by the experience that he quit the sport. No amount of consolation on my part would bring him back either. Once I was foolishly back on the demo team, I began to learn tornado kicks, jumping/flying kicks, how to land on the mat when being slammed down and how to break things with my hands and feet. I quickly moved from boards to cinder blocks. In no time, I was busting up concrete with my bare hands and feet.
That was the precise moment in time when my spine began its descent into deterioration. But that isn’t the real “kicker” (sorry for the pun, I couldn’t help myself). The worst injuries were yet to come. Soon after the kick to the abdomen, I was sparring with yet another young man who thought it funny to bring illegal muy thai moves into our dojang. You do not block with your knees in TKD. As I went to roundhouse kick him, he blocked with his sharp little knee and I was left with a hematoma the size of a grapefruit on my shin. The doctor was very afraid I would form and possibly die of a blood clot, but I obviously didn’t. Again and again I went back for more punishment. As time went on and I was twisted and thrown around like a ragdoll, my shoulders began to pop. The left one began to roll out of socket. Then the day came that I was to learn how to jump from a small trampoline and land a side kick on just one leg. It looked easy enough when I watched the guys do it, and with their encouragement I went for it. The first time I tried it I fell to the mat. I got up and tried the jump again. The second time didn’t fare well for me. I landed the kick on my left leg alright, but when I did, my knee wrenched and popped and I went to the floor in agony. With more threats from my asshole TKD master that if I didn’t keep trying he would lock me out, I limped to the back of the line and tried again. The next landing would be the end of my left knee forever. And even though I was in blinding pain, I couldn’t give up. Not yet. I had failed in all other areas of my life so far and was determined to succeed at something. I could not and would not accept defeat so I kept trying. HUGE mistake! After class that evening, as I changed back into my street clothes, I got a good look at my knee. My knee as well as the entire outside of my leg was beginning to turn black. Not black and blue. Not purply. It was black. That scared the hell out of me. I hid it from my teammates and went home in so much pain I passed out immediately and slept for days. I went to a new orthopedist who also happened to be a black belt. With a very concerned frown on his face, he informed me that my martial arts days were over if I wanted to keep the ability to walk. He did offer me a controversial surgery; a very extreme surgery involving stripping my IT band and replacing it with one from a pig or a cadaver—attaching it to my leg with 27 bolts, leaving me with a scar from hip to ankle. With only a 50/50 chance of recovery, I opted out of that surgery, although I did let him fix my left rotator cuff. He warned me that since I was so hypermobile and flexible, I would most likely develop osteoarthritis in the next decade or so, but I didn’t want to believe that even with a family history of OA. I was young and thought I could simply shake it all off. I could not have been more wrong.
Soon, I began having severe, chronic neck pain. I had moved to a new town and began to search for a new doctor. I was told many different things were wrong with me from stress to exhaustion and even that it was all in my head. As I mentioned in my chronic pain blog, I went to one doctor visit in so much pain that I threatened suicide if someone didn’t find the source of the pain and fix me. Instead of imaging or even consolation, I was locked in an exam room all day long and put on suicide watch. Between the neck pain, the knee pain, the shoulder pain and the spinal pain, I didn’t think I could handle anything else. That’s when my feet began to throb. I found a foot clinic and began receiving cortisone injections in my feet. I learned much too late that those injections were breaking down the tissue in my tired feet, but I couldn’t focus too much on my feet. My neck was literally killing me and my arms and hands had begun to go numb. There were some huge insurance changes going on during that time. Big HMO’s didn’t want to pay for MRI’s unless the patient was dying, so no physician would order scans for my neck or my knee. I went for 12 years with that neck pain before a neurologist finally ordered an MRI scan. Turns out I had a bone spur protruding into my spinal cord and needed immediate neurosurgery. I was told that all the former negligence and activity could have left me paralyzed, but there was nothing to do about that. In 2014 I had the bone spur removed and now live with a titanium cervical spine. I can still hear the nauseating grinding sounds when I turn my head. That same neurologist ordered several scans of my spine and that was when I found out I had scoliosis and a hemangioma (tumor) on my spine. It was never detected as a child and I never had prior troubles, so I was left to believe this too was caused by the trauma of falling to the mat over and over for years. It was also during that time that I was diagnosed with degenerative disc disease. My spine is literally crumbling inside of me.
In 2015 I found an independent orthopedic surgeon who consented to do exploratory surgery of my knee. Once inside, he found multiple bone spurs and unbelievably, I had been walking on a fractured femur bone for 14 years! My kneecap was mush as well. He also told me that I had no cartilage in that knee. None. I’m literally walking bone on bone and with a fracture at that. I was informed that it would never be normal again. He did not want to put a titanium replacement in though, stating that I was too young. They don’t like to put titanium knees into people younger than 65, he said. I yelled at him and fought with him that I didn’t deserve to walk on a fractured leg until I was 65. Neither of us would relent and I left his practice extremely disappointed. With that “out of the way” for the time being, I then found a podiatrist to begin the long trip to hell in regards to my feet. Through all the kicking and breaking, I had developed a neuroma (more tumors) in both feet and both heels had a bone spur. One neuroma was successfully taken out. Two months later, the next one was removed. Two months after that, the left heel spur was removed. And here we have come full circle back to that foot surgery I just had in September, 2016. It was supposed to be another simple heel spur removal, or plantar fasciotomy, in medical terms. But it didn’t go as simply as the last one. I knew something was dreadfully wrong immediately after I woke up from surgery, but chalked it up to exhaustion. In all 18 of my surgeries, I have not once slept 7 straight days, but after that final foot surgery, I literally could not move for a solid week. I couldn’t sit up, I couldn’t walk, the crutches were killing my weak shoulders and I couldn’t crawl around because of the knee. I was spiraling into a deep depression that is still hanging onto me like a wet blanket. The 19th of January, 2017 marked 4 months post op and my podiatrist wasn’t taking my post op pain seriously. He wouldn’t even touch my foot. He chided me to stop walking in my surgical boot, but I couldn’t. So, I found yet another orthopedic specialist. Within 5 minutes of meeting me, she had set me up for an MRI of my right foot and began telling me I needed PT for my spine. I went yesterday to pick up my MRI report because I could not wait for my next appointment to find out what is wrong with my foot. As I sat in the car and read over it, I was overtaken with disbelief. Not only do I have a high grade tear in my central cord plantar fascia, but there is another high grade tear in the lateral plantar fascia as well. And the icing on the cake is the fibroma tumor that has rapidly developed in the arch of my foot. I cried all the way home. No wonder I can’t walk. No wonder my foot flops like a dead fish. I couldn’t believe any of it. But it is true. I called my new doctor immediately and sobbed to her. She is sending me for intensive rehabilitation for my spine, my feet, both ankles and my knee. I haven’t told her that my shoulders are clicking again. As a matter of fact, she knows nothing of my shoulder history. I can only picture her hanging her head when I do tell her. Even with all the PT coming my way, I will never walk normally again.
With all of that said, I hope you can now understand why I cannot recommend martial arts to anyone. And while I do realize that I cannot blame Taekwondo for everything, I still cannot promote it. Genetics did play a role in the slippery slope I’ve been sliding down for well over a decade now. None of this is going to get better either. All my “conditions” are degenerative, meaning they will slowly get worse with age. Emotional and mental troubles played a hard factor in that body-mind connection, I’m positive, but I am also a firm believer that if I had never stepped foot in a martial arts studio, my health would be 75% better than it is now.
If you are considering martial arts, or thinking about putting your kids into a program like that, please reconsider, or at the very least, talk to a doctor first; especially if you have a family history of any type of joint, spine or bone problems. I’m really not here to bad mouth the sport. I’m simply trying to save someone else from all the torture I’ve lived through as a result.
This is an image of the inside of my knee taken during surgery May, 2015.
This is an image of the inside of my knee taken during surgery May, 2015.