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Written by Beau B Hightower DC, MS, CSCS, CES
Jon Jones nearly lived up to his nickname during UFC 152. “Bones Jones” came very close to having his arm literally broken by Vitor Belfort in the first round of their Light Heavyweight title fight in September. Memories of the remnants of the broken arm sustained by Antônio Rodrigo Nogueira at the hands of Frank Mir quickly rush to any fight fan’s mind.
For Nogueira, this clearly wasn’t a shot to the funny bone and came as a huge suprise given his vast grappling background. Jon Jones was lucky to have escaped Belfort’s textbook submission attempt, despite the fact that his elbow was clearly damaged and he was forced to fight with essentially one arm for the next several rounds. The elbow is a very simple joint, yet there are several common afflictions that fighters have problems with. Some of them are a by-product of intentional submission assaults such as arm-bars and “kimuras”, others such tendinitis (tennis or golfer’s elbow) are seen throughout athletics.
The elbow joint is a simple joint structure with one primary motion. The natural motion at the human elbow joint is flexion (like a bicep curl) and extension (like throwing a punch).
There is also another articulation next to the actual elbow joint that allows the hand to turn over and back with the upper arm in one position (pronation and supination). The second joint is known as the radio-ulnar joint. The elbow is limited in extension by ligaments, and when ligaments structurally fail, the elbow is limited by bone. When the joint is pushed passed it’s normal range of motion into hyper-extension, the ligaments of the elbow ( lateral collateral ligament complex in particular) are tasked with trying to hold the integrity of the joint in place. When they rupture or tear, the bone becomes stressed and can shatter in the process of a submission move . A “ligament strain”, which is what Bones Jones suffered, is actually a series of very small tears within the ligament itself. This is known in the medical community as a grade 1 tear. Luckily for Bones Jones and fight fans, the treatment for this injury is typically limited to rest, splinting, and possibly myofascial therapies to help the body heal at a more rapid rate.
When applying an arm bar, the combatant is literally pushing his opponent to choose between quitting or risk being debilitated. As the opponent in the guard position’s legs rise up above his opponents head, he creates a lever arm at the elbow, and when both hands pull back and downward o the arm, it becomes a battle of strength between the victim’s bicep and both of the aggressors’ arms. The abnormally long arms of Jon Jones may have contributed to his ability to escape such a deep arm bar. We must also acknowledge the mental toughness of Jones, as most fighters would have instinctively tapped out in order to save their arm. Jones’ championship pedigree is built upon on his tough mental foundation. Jones stated after the fight “my arm felt numb”. He did an immaculate job of not acknowledging his injury during the fight, even though Belfort was clearly targeting the damaged right elbow of Jones for the entire second round. Unfortunately for Belfort, Jones was clearly targeting Belfort’s face with the sharpest elbows this sport has ever seen. Jones turned the table and caught Belfort in the same kimura that Frank Mir used to shatter Nogueira’s arm. Belfort valued his arm more than his fading chance at the title and tapped almost instantly.
Tennis elbow is a type of degenerative tendon pathology that presents with slow achy pain on the outside part of the elbow that get’s worse time and is known for waking people out of their sleep due to the pain. Another term for tennis elbow is elbow tendinitis. This is actually a misnomer, as upon microscopic evaluation, physiologists have recently shown that there is very little inflammation. This particular injury is caused by micro-fraying of the tendon of the forearm muscles where it attaches to the lateral elbow area or lateral epicondyle. Since the tendon needs to be literally rebuilt like a muscle, a course of physical therapy with a focus on elongating the muscle under tension is prescribed. Other less successful treatments include, braces, cortisone injections, and massage. Despite the name, most tennis elbow cases occur with patients who do not play tennis. Golfer’s elbow is the exact same injury as Tennis elbow with the exception being that the location of pain and dysfunction is on the inside part of the elbow.
As Jon Jones learned during his victorious bout with Vitor Belfort, no matter how phenomenal of an athlete or a fighter, you are one properly administered submission away from a broken bone.
(If you have suffered from a hyper-extended elbow, this is a serious injury and needs to be evaluated by a medical professional. Not doing so can lead to permanent disability)
Dr. Beau Hightower is a former collegiate athlete and avid fight fan. He serves as the President of EliteOrtho-Therapy and Sports Medicine LLC, the premier injury resolution center in New Mexico. (elite-osm.com)