Mixed martial arts (MMA) is a combat sport where almost anything goes. Contestants use several fighting techniques at their disposal, including kicking, punching, leg sweeps, and grappling. For that reason, it is a sport where a lot of injuries occur, but do the fighters feel pain while being kicked, punched, and thrown by their opponents in the cage?
MMA fighters do feel pain, maybe even more than most people realize. However, this heightened sensory perception can be of great advantage for the veteran fighter. They have not only developed a tolerance for it but have honed the skills necessary for devising strategies to deal with it.
This article will explain the difference between pain threshold and pain tolerance as well as other factors. Then you’ll discover why MMA fighters are so good at managing them.
How MMA Fighters Control Pain During the Fight
Several factors contribute to a fighter’s ability to withstand pain while being pummeled by his opponent. Here are just a few of the most important ones concerning combat sports:
Your pain threshold is the point at which you begin to feel pain. A curve represents the increased perception of pain to a given stimulus. In other words, it is a gradual process. There has to be an increasing rate of input to affect the threshold.
Some clinical studies show that past trauma and injury can increase the pain threshold in specific individuals. However, other studies show that when an animal is injured, it goes into a state of chronic pain, and even the slightest stimulus can cause a relapse. Put another way, past injury or trauma may dictate an individual’s pain threshold.
Fibromyalgia patients seem to support this latter finding. In most cases, the disease causes a decrease in the pain threshold due to the patient’s heightened sensitivity to nerve stimulation. The same thing can happen after a severe injury due to localized trauma evoking high sensory output.
The MMA fighter may also experience the same lowered threshold. After suffering several injuries, he has a heightened awareness of his pain, at least in those localized areas of past trauma.
For example, suppose that his opponent broke his nose during a fight he had three years ago. Due to the body’s ability to protect itself, the nose’s nerves are now more sensitive to pain and pressure. The slightest touch may cause pain today, even though the injury happened several years ago.
Your maximum tolerance to pain is the point where you can’t stand it anymore. For example, if you lift a heavy weight for 20 repetitions, you may feel a burning sensation in your muscles due to lactic acid buildup. At 30 repetitions, the pain gets so bad, and you have to stop. So, at that point, you reach your pain tolerance.
Although it is important not to get threshold and tolerance confused, they can work hand-in-hand. For example, a fighter who has a lot of past injuries can use pain to his advantage, similar to their tolerance of leg kicks without shin guards.
Let’s say, in this case, he’s been an MMA fighter for several years, and he’s had a broken nose, bruised ribs, and a few dislocated joints. The fact that he’s known pain intimately for a long time puts his tolerance for it way above other fighters who are just starting in the sport.
That’s why veteran fighters often seem to have more stamina than their younger opponents. It’s not that they have some physical advantage. It just means that they’ve adapted their fighting style around their chronic pain, and they know how to “take it.”
Dissociation is usually considered a psychological disorder. However, in the world of combat sports, it’s a good thing. This condition is where your mind completely shuts out the pain, so you don’t feel anything.
The problem for most athletes is that selective dissociation doesn’t work very well, according to science. Unless you have some strange medical condition, it is very hard to “think away” the pain.
Still, there are some techniques like meditation that can help. However, the best form of dissociation may be in the form of peer pressure. After all, there’s nothing like public shaming or your fight manager telling you to “just suck it up.”
Scientists once thought that human males had a better tolerance for pain than females. Since then, there’s been a lot of conflicting data thrown around. It may just come down to the psychological pressures of MMA fighters having to display a tough-guy image.
Age is another misunderstood variable when it comes to pain threshold and tolerance. In the past, Scientists touted the benefits of youth over age when it came to pain. Recent studies, however, point to our ability to increase the threshold as we get older. However, tolerance to pain may decrease.
MMA fighters are in a class of elite athletes where physical fitness is everything. Here are some of the components they work on daily:
- Ballistic movement (plyometrics)
- Martial arts techniques
The list can continue almost forever, but you get the idea: These guys are in shape. But does it affect their pain tolerance?
In a recent study conducted by a group of Norwegian sports scientists, the researchers found a significant difference in pain tolerance between athletes and non-athletes. This finding is of no surprise since athletes regularly train through all different types of pain scenarios.
Here are some examples:
- Anaerobic threshold training. This method is one of the most highly regarded for getting an athlete ready for the pain they must endure while competing. It involves taxing the muscle to the point where the lactic acid buildup is so significant that the athlete’s pain threshold and tolerance are challenged. The result is a steady increase in both.
- General adaptation. When bones, tendons, and ligaments come together to form a joint, there are many stresses placed on all of those moving parts, especially during athletic competition. As an athlete begins to train those specific areas, they start to adapt to stress and are less likely to cause pain during high workloads.
- Maximal cardiac output training. This is just a fancy way of saying aerobic exercise. By conditioning the lungs to work efficiently, they train their bodies to release pain-relieving endorphins and other chemicals, giving them a distinct advantage over the deconditioned bystander.
Pain Management Before a Fight
Fighters are known to pop an Advil or two before a fight. But what about narcotic pain relievers?
The UFC bans most high-powered prescription pain medication unless a doctor is treating the athlete for an injury. But that doesn’t keep a fighter from masking pain symptoms preemptively before a fight. Here are two of those common ones used by professional fighters:
- Morphine is the drug of choice for most combat athletes, including football players. It is administered by injection. Shoot a little into the injury’s local area, and you probably won’t feel a thing.
- Oxycodone comes a close second. Unlike morphine, it is an opioid that can be taken orally. It works throughout the entire body to relieve pain by providing a feeling of euphoria.
Most of the more intelligent fighters don’t resort to narcotics. Instead, they learn to manage pain with physical therapy and proper training protocols.
The most crucial point here is that MMA fighters certainly do feel pain. They may even be able to feel it more than others due to past injuries.
The difference between the average person’s tolerance to it and theirs is how they deal with it. From their physical training to their fighting strategies, MMA fighters learn how to manage the ravages of pain early in their careers.