Approximately 8 million Americans currently practice some form of martial art. Given the rising popularity of martial arts, sports medicine researchers decided to compare injury rates among practitioners of various styles. Tae kwon do participants experience a higher rate of injury than those who practice Shotokan karate or other martial arts, according to the research results (British Journal of Sports Medicine, 2005; 39, 29–33).

Scientists based the study on survey data of 263 participants involved in Shotokan karate, tae kwon do, aikido, kung fu or tai chi. The data, collected over a 1-year period, revealed that different martial arts have significantly different types and distributions of injuries. Among practitioners of tae kwon do, 59% experienced an injury that required time off from training, whereas this was true of only 14% of tai chi practitioners.

The study authors concluded that martial arts appear to be safe for young athletes, particularly those at beginning or intermediate levels. Martial artists with at least 3 years of experience were twice as likely to sustain injury as less experienced students.

Researchers acknowledged that limitations of the study included the small sample size; the relationship of volume of training to increased likelihood of injury; and to biases resulting from self-reporting.

Whether study participants adhered to existing safety rules within their particular martial art was probably also a significant factor in injury rates. Another study found a much lower rate of injury in tae kwon do during tournaments, in which strictly enforced rules of engagement do not permit face blows and allow only light contact with other target areas (British Journal of Sports Medicine, 2003; 37, 401–4).