Combat sports such as MMA, boxing, and other striking sports involve a high incidence of traumatic impact to the head, which can result in acute alteration in function, as well as the possibility of long-term negative sequelae. Altered vestibular function is thought to be a common factor in the symptoms of acute concussion. The vestibular system is important for perception of head movement, and stabilization and orientation of the body in response to this, as well as being involved in autonomic regulation of heart rate.
In this study, researchers used electrical vestibular stimulation (EVS) to measure vestibular contributions to balance control in a sample of 19 professional & amateur Muay Thai athletes, and compared them to non-fighter controls. EVS was applied while measuring calf muscle activity.
The muscle response to the evoked stimulus was significantly decreased in the fighters compared to controls, and was worse in those fighters identified as having “high exposure” to head impact (>10 fights). Around half of the degree in variance of timing was explained by the athlete-reported number of head impacts. These findings suggest that combat sports athletes may demonstrate advanced ageing of the vestibular system.
This is an important study in the landscape of combat sports related head injury. Although this type of vestibular assessment is currently limited to the laboratory setting, in the future if this could be replicated in the clinical setting it could provide a useful tool both in terms of long-term monitoring of athlete vestibular function as well as aiding in return to training and return to play protocols.
This study also reinforces the importance of vestibular rehabilitation in the management of concussion.
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Banman, C. J., Schneider, K. J., Cluff, T., & Peters, R. M. (2021). Altered Vestibular Balance Function in Combat Sport Athletes. Journal of Neurotrauma.