Is Boxing Dangerous?

March 13, 2017

This article was inspired by the story of Kalae, which can be watched here .


Most sports require some degree of commitment, and almost all sports involve rigorous physical training. But what about the sports that require courage? Maybe even a willingness to lose your health? When the objective of a sport is to inflict as much physical harm as possible on your opponent, it begs the questions if it is a dangerous sport. Recently, we set out to explore these questions and determine if we can say with any certainty whether or not boxing is a dangerous sport.

Nature of the Sport

Many contact sports, especially the more popular ones such as American football, and boxing are usually the main topics when it comes to debates about sports that may be perceived as dangerous. As far as sports go, boxing is unique in that the “winner” in a boxing match is the player who inflicts what is perceived to be the most physical harm on their opponent. Of course, the belief that boxers are hurting each other is not necessarily true, and as long as the athletes are preforming the sport in the appropriate way and following the safety rules, all parties should be safe. But this doesn’t always keep the winner or loser safe from injuries, some of which can even be long term. In fact, the liveliest matches are the ones where both boxers are beating each other to a pulp, no doubt in an effort to show their stamina, speed, agility, and training. 

Long Term Fears

A long term boxing career can expose one to repeated blows to the head, which can result in what’s known as “Punch Drunk Syndrome,” which is characterized as a condition where the sufferer often slurs their speech or may not be as stable when standing or moving, typical behaviors observed in people who may be intoxicated. This syndrome is usually a result of repeated head injuries, and can come along with blood clots forming on the brain, and even brain trauma and tissue damage. Boxing has also been linked to fractures to the bones within the head and face, not to mention the fractures and even more damage to other parts of the boxer’s body. There are two main types of brain damage: one happens through a single, traumatic blow, while the other is the result of small, repeated blows that eventually accumulate into a major trauma. In short, the effects of boxing on the body are extreme and troubling for doctors, and especially so for neurologists.

It’s Not All Bad News

There are definitely a lot of stories, most of which are medical research and some just opinion pieces, that condemn boxing as one of the most dangerous sports of our time. However, this is not exactly the only story when it comes to the sport, and there are some important points to take into consideration when answering this question on whether or not boxing is too dangerous for people.

Most importantly, boxing is one of the most heavily regulated sports, and safety measures are taken very seriously. Fighters are paired with opponents of similar weight and experience level, and at least in amateur matches and in the Olympics, the use of boxing gloves and head guards are strictly enforced. Additionally, most boxing matches require a doctor to be on site for a pre-fight physical in order to determine that the fighter is at peak physical health before starting the match, while the referee is also tasked with carefully monitoring each blow to ensure that boxers remain safe in the ring.

Ultimately, the responsibility of keeping boxers safe from injury rests not only with coaches and regulators, but on the players themselves. In the ring, and during the heat of a match, it can be easy to get carried away and take something that could be totally safe into the realm of danger. The best way to control that risk is by each boxer taking responsibility for their actions and always keeping in mind that there can be such a thing as too many blows, as well as taking extra precaution to protect oneself against an overzealous opponent.

Applicable Research

Ultimately, the question is not just whether boxing is inherently a dangerous sport that should be banned, or if it is something that can be regulated to be safer, perhaps the most important question is what, if anything, can we do to curb the negative effects of boxing without losing the sport altogether? We know that even though a fighter in his prime may not display any troubling signs of permanent damage, some former athletes of contact sports have gone on to show progressive neurocognitive deficits. There are long-term studies currently being conducted to determine the neurological effects of boxing on professional fighters. Once these tests have been conducted over the span of several years, perhaps we will have more definitive answers on the long-term effects of repeated blows to the head. In the meantime, the most important notes to stress is the importance of protective gear and safe practices, for all who may be involved in the sport.

By Dr. Weeraworn Nakarawat, Neurologist, Neuroscience Center, Bumrungrad Hospital

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