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Although falling techniques are taught to martial artists, athletes and paratroopers, a BMJ search of Highwire listed journals has discovered no mention of “falling correctly”, “safe falling”, etc. “Reducing the force of impact of a fall on people’s bones” is discussed.1 But the literature mentions no impact reduction techniques except for hip protectors. Exercise and muscle power in old age are recognized as helping regain balance after tripping,2 but not all falls are preventable. So perhaps safe falling should also be explored.
One finds discussion of types of fall, with no discussion of those who were trained in falling.3 Studies of reactions to slipping do not distinguish athletes and martial artists from other healthy subjects.4 Tai Chi is mentioned as appropriate exercise for the prevention of falls,5 but unlike the Japanese arts, Tai Chi does not teach falling.
Although correct falling is neglected in the medical literature, there is much semi-scientific literature by martial arts masters. An internet search for ukemi yields useful information.
The ease with which martial artists take even very hard falls suggests the hypothesis that falling practice while relatively young can prevent injury from falls incurred later in life.
A Japanese study of 11 deaths and serious injuries in aikido from 1972–75, listed eight due to falling.6 Most of the victims were relative beginners, suggesting that those who practice over long periods are more protected.
However, the study population is too small to permit definitive conclusions, nor is it known how many such injuries may have gone unreported. The author admits that: “some universities were not particularly cooperative” in supplying data. New students who had suffered injury or death had been submitted to excruciating training with many repetitive falls, suggesting that the injury protection benefits of martial arts skills must be balanced against risks accompanying the process of acquiring the skills. And literature searches reveal no biomechanical evidence that martial arts falls result in fewer peak forces on the body than do everyday falls.
Martial arts tend to have rather specialized falling techniques. Aikido falls may not protect you in cases where judo falls will be effective. There seem to be no studies of the angles of falls most likely encountered in daily life, and what techniques would be generally most preventative. Martial arts practice is so strenuous that it is unlikely that large numbers will take it up. There may be an upper limit to the age at which one can start practice, although anecdotally it is not unknown to begin in one’s late 50s, and at least one Japanese businessman started aikido at 70 and reached the black belt.
It is not known whether the teachers involved in the tragedies cited above had training in health sciences or injury prevention. Many martial arts teachers take extreme care for the safety of trainees, and some are health professionals.
There is plenty of anecdotal evidence of martial artists coming out safely from quite dangerous falls. So although martial arts falling techniques may not be a solution for the general population, they may be so for a minority. It remains to be seen whether safe and enjoyable methods might be developed to teach selected falling techniques to the general population.
I thank L Katz of Budo Ninjutsu for much helpful advice.
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