Female MMA fighting has undergone a rapid rise in popularity over the last several years, and with that there has been the introduction of a whole new dynamic of the sport, and of course, a new list of controversies.
One issue that has been floating around forums and blogs for a while now is the debate over whether or not chest strikes should be legal. In this situation, the primary concern is to the breast or pectoral muscle rather than the rib cage. There are three primary methods in which a fighter could sustain trauma to the chest:
1. Kick (usually front kick)
The thought process behind much of the commotion is that a woman’s breasts can be potentially injured. It is unknown whether this concern originated from a man or a woman, but before casting judgment we will look at the science behind chest injuries.
If a breast is injured by trauma such as that which could be caused by the strikes listed above, it can result in the rupture of tiny blood vessels. This could cause an area of localized bleeding called a hematoma, which can be felt as a lump. Trauma to the breast also has the potential to damage the fat cells in the tissue, causing it to die. This “fat necrosis” can result in lumps.
A study conducted in 2002 reported a correlation between physical trauma and breast cancer stating, “Models of epithelial cell generation indicate that a causal link between physical trauma and cancer is plausible. A latent interval between cancer onset and presentation of under 5 years is also plausible. The most likely explanation of the findings is that physical trauma can cause breast cancer.”
There has been some recent concern regarding women fighters with breast implants. Last year the Louisiana Athletic Commission suspended women fighters with breast implants, while they conducted research to determine the health risks associated with damaging the fake breasts. Nebraska currently requires permission from a doctor clearing the athlete to compete, and Louisiana will probably follow suit. Trauma to the breast can cause the implant to break, in which case the fighter is likely to incur pain and the necessity of repairing the breast.
There are a few lucky women out there who may be able to keep their breasts while making the cut to there appropriate weight class. Generally, that is the first thing to go. Breast consist of mostly fat, and reducing fat is a key element to a smooth weight cut. That being said, a good majority of female fighters and athletes in general are going to be relatively small chested. This in itself reduces the possibility of trauma to the area.
Some have compared a “boob shot” to a groin shot. This is not the same thing. Even if the impact was directed precisely on the nipple, the pain is evident, but not likely to be excruciating. There are far more nerve endings in the groin area. In reality, getting struck in the breast is not much, if any more painful than a strike anywhere else and it is undoubtedly less painful than a strike to the head.
There are chest protectors that are available for women to wear during training. Some states even require chest protectors for female competitors, though this requirement is often satisfied by a thick sports bra.
Men vs Women
Simply stated: Men don’t have boobs. They do not have to wear a sports bras and pecs don’t generally jiggle. Both genders do have ribs and a sternum. These areas can sustain injury from hard impact, and fighters part of the objective of fighting is avoiding said trauma.
Commotio cordis means agitation of the heart and is an often-lethal disruption of heart rhythm. This occurs as a result of a blow to the area directly over the heart at very precise time during the cycle of a heartbeat. This causes cardiac arrest, which is fatal for over 50 percent of victims. This is most common in young boys because the thorax is not fully developed and is more likely to allow the disruption. Could this be a concern in MMA? It is not impossible, but it is also not likely given the age and body frame of most fighters.
Though breast may incur some trauma, they are not typically the target for strikes. Punches to the head and kicks to the legs and outer ribs are much more common and effective for damaging a fighter while maintaining optimal posture for blocking. Even in a ground and pound situation the target is typically the head, body or even shoulders and arms. Knees may land incidentally against the breasts, but they are likely meant for the sternum or stomach.
All Part of the Game
Overall, it appears that the “health risks” caused by strikes to the chest are relatively low, infrequent and less severe than other techniques such as punching to the head, which is known to cause brain damage.
*Author note: As a female MMA fighter I believe that if you can punch to the brain you should be able to punch to the breast.