Today’s media spotlight in my field of medicine skews heavily toward
the discussion of the dangers and risks surrounding concussion in sports.
While those dangers are real and remain an important focus of mine, we
must recognize that for many sports – there are topics aside from
concussion which also pose a tremendous threat to the health and lives
of the athletes who play them.
Last month, I had the opportunity as a board member on the California State
Athletic Commission (CSAC) to participate in a more than three-hour summit
on the current crisis of dehydration and weight-cutting in Mixed Martial
Arts (MMA). And yes, it is a crisis.
The Scope of the MMA Dehydration Problem
According to the Association of Ringside Physicians (ARP), the organization
created to develop medical protocols and guidelines to insure the safety
and protection of professional boxers and MMA athletes, one recent study
found that nearly 40 percent of MMA fighters enter the ring dehydrated
on the day of their competition.
The first question someone not involved or familiar with combat sports
may ask is: why would a fighter do that on purpose? The basic rationale
is this: if a fighter can weigh-in for a bout at a lower weight class
and then rapidly put weight back on in the day or so leading up to the
match, the popular belief is that he may end up with a significant advantage
over his potentially smaller opponent on the day of the fight.
As one can imagine, severe dehydration and rapid rehydration is a dangerous
game. From negative effects on nearly every organ and bodily function,
including the brain, heart and kidneys to mood swings and mental changes,
the hazards are extreme and documented. Interestingly enough, what many
fighters may not realize but science tells us is true, is that this practice
actually decreases muscle strength, endurance, heart and cardiovascular
function and reduces energy utilization and nutrient exchange. That means
all that grueling training they’ve been doing for so many months
can be significantly diminished.
Practical Education and Realistic Solutions
Of course, the goal in all of this is to educate combat athletes about
the dangers of these dehydration practices and in doing so, to get them
to look at better, healthier ways to train. But as we’ve seen time
and again with the concussion crisis, “facts and fear” tend
to have the opposite effect than the one that is intended. It’s
human nature to think we’re immune to the statistics, no matter
how frightening a picture they paint.
I believe we must give these fighters a positive incentive to engage in
the behavior we’re looking for. We’ve got to find a way to
tie the facts to performance. We must show how performance actually improves
with proper hydration. Awareness for awareness-sake alone simply won’t work.
As one of the first steps in this multi-layered approach, the CSAC and
the ARP are in support of an IV ban in an effort to help curb the dangerous
dehydration/rehydration practices plaguing the MMA. It’s a controversial
topic, I know. But the point is to protect these athletes. If we can remove
one method of engaging in these dangerous practices, then we’re
on our way to eliminating the practices in their entirety.
We’ve got a long road ahead of us, to be sure. And the discussions
and debates on this topic will rage on, as they do with concussion and
many other life-and-death considerations in the world of sport. So we’ll
hash it out, discuss it, and work together to find a solution that will
protect the health of these amazing athletes. And if in doing so even
one life is saved – it will all be worth it. It always is.