Understanding the anatomy of an armbar

armbar anatomy

Understanding how the armbar works could help you avoid getting injured by it.

The arm bar is the most common cause of elbow injury in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu tournaments. Anyone who has trained a considerable amount of time may have also experienced an armbar injury during training as a result of an overzealous training partner, or the occasional late tap. Either way, it is a painful and bothersome injury that can affect our daily routine and delay further training.

Essential Anatomy
The elbow joint is comprised of three bones, the far end of the upper arm bone (humerus) and the near end of the forearm bones (ulna and radius). The articulation between the ulna and the humerus is commonly thought to be the elbow joint, however, this hinge joint is actually only a part of the anatomy with the humerus and radius forming another joint, and the radius and ulna forming a pivot joint. This understanding is necessary to determine why the position of the hand is important in achieving the hyperextension needed for the submission.

Mechanisms of Injury
The plain arm bar is the hyperextension of the elbow, caused by the jamming of the a part of the ulna called the olecranon into a part of the humerus called the olecranon fossa. In some cases, an audible pop is heard, likely thought to be caused by compression of the articular cartilage, or the joint capsule.

The hyperextension is brought about by an excessive force bringing the elbow “backwards” against its normal movement. I have felt this a few times during an armbar, but also when someone pulls the elbow back when an arm is propped or when an arm is being used to stabilize either your body or that of your opponent. There are instances the tap is applied just half a second too late before major damage takes place. In this case, a short period of immobilization, rest, joint compression and elevation may help resolve the injury by allowing the tissues some time to heal.

Ligaments on either side of the elbow, and between the two forearm bones occasionally get damaged and accompany such hyperextension injury. When a hyperextension takes place, and one begins to notice that most movement is painful and instability is felt, ligamentous sprain may have taken place and a visit to your qualified medical professional is warranted.

Fractures of the humerus, radius or ulna may also occur specially when the fulcrum is applied through the shaft of the bone as opposed to the joint. This is commonly observed with a significant deformation of the normal anatomy of the arm and also requires immediate medical attention.

Qualified medical professionals will need to perform a comprehensive physical exam to thoroughly assess the injury. They can detect ligamentous damage through diagnostic tools such as musculoskeletal ultrasound or through magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). MRIs and radiographs (X Rays) maybe utilized to diagnose fractures or damage resulting from hyperextension of the bones.


Still a Safe Sport
Studies show that injury risk in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu is still significantly less than other contact sports. A 2014 study by Scoggin and colleagues compared BJJ with MMA and noted that BJJ competitions resulted in 26 times lower rates of injury than MMA events. In terms of skill level, Kreiswirth and colleagues (2014) noted that the risk of joint injury was similar among belt ranks or experience during competition.

Although injuries take place, jiu jitsu athletes put the welfare of their competitors and training partners above all else. We understand the fact that our peers make us better and their availability for training allows us to continue to have quality training to improve our abilities in the sport. Jiu jitsu is a community where all are concerned with the health of one another.

Ethan M. Kreiswirth, PhD, ATC, Gregory D. Myer, PhD, CSCS, FACSM, and Mitchell J. Rauh, PhD, PT, MPH, FACSM, Incidence of Injury Among Male Brazilian Jiujitsu Fighters at the World Jiu-Jitsu No-Gi Championship 2009, J Athl Train. 2014 Jan-Feb; 49(1): 89–94. James F. Scoggin III, MD*, Georgiy Brusovanik, MD, Byron H. Izuka, MD, Eddy Zandee van Rilland, BS, Olga Geling, PhD, Seren Tokumura, MD, Assessment of Injuries During Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Competition, Orthopaedic Journal of Sports Medicine February 2014 vol. 2 no. 2

Kirby Baloy, PT, DPT, MSHMS, CSCS

Kirby Baloy, PT, DPT, MSHMS, CSCS

Dr. Baloy is currently an adjunct faculty for neurologic interventions in physical therapy at Stanbridge College in Irvine, CA. He is also the Director of Rehabilitation at HealthPro Wellness Center in Huntington Beach, CA. He serves on the national certification committee and as an ambassador for the Exercise is Medicine Initiative of the American College of Sports Medicine. Dr. Baloy has been training BJJ since 2007 and holds a brown belt under Kings MMA.
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