Leg Lock Injuries and Preventative Measures

Leglocks, such as the “knee bar”, “heel lock”/”heel hook”, and “inverted heel lock/hook”, are common moves in many combat and martial arts, like Jiu-Jitsu, catch wrestling and so on. As the name suggests, they are joint locks directed at the joints of your leg like the hip, knee, or ankle joint. Although a useful self-defense move in combat sport, many are quite dangerous to the person subjected to them, and can cause serious damage to the joints and supporting muscles,  ligaments and tendons (including dislocations or bone breaks) – the knees in particular are a very vulnerable areas. Indeed some moves like the heel hook are banned in certain sports like judo. In this article, we look at some of the main types of leg lock, how they can damage your knees, and what you can do to strengthen your knees in order to prevent (and recover from) such injuries. If you partake in martial arts or combat sports involving joint locks, this is the article for you.

Main types of joint lock

Knee bar: in this move, the person executing the move locks the leg of their opponent between their own legs and secures it using their arms so that their opponent’s kneecap points in the direction of the body. They next apply pressure using their hips/core, forcing their opponent’s leg to straighten out, effectively hyperextending the knee. In a variation of this move, the fighter will, rather than holding the opponent’s leg with their hands, trap the foot behind their armpit, whilst applying pressure using the upper body as well as the hips.  Much more force is then applied to the knee, and it is much more difficult to escape the lock without suffering ligament or tissue damage.
Heel hook: this is a leg lock in which you places your legs around the leg of the opponent, then hold the latter’s foot in your armpit on the same side. The whole body is then used to generate a twisting force, applying severe torque to the ankle (medial), which is then transferred to the knee.
Inverted heel hook: similar to the heel hook above, you hold the opponent’s foot in your opposite-side armpit, and twist laterally. Both the heel hook and the inverted heel hook are considered to be extremely dangerous moves, with very high rates of injury to the knee. In a lot of combat sports, they are in fact banned. And where allowed, holding these moves for too long is considered a severe infraction.

Knee Injuries caused by leg locks
Which brings us to the types of knee injury that can be caused by these moves. Knee injuries caused by leg locks can be acute, traumatic injuries, or injuries of overuse. Some common ones are:

ACL tear: this is where your knee gets twisted down and inward, such that the anterior cruciate ligament found between your knee joint and whose purpose is to limit the forward (anterior) movement of your tibia bone from the thigh bone, is torn by the train. When you tear your ACL you will likely hear a ‘pop’ and feel your knee ‘give way’. ACL injuries are usually accompanied by injuries to the Medial Collateral Ligament (MCL) and the medial or lateral meniscus. They are common injuries resulting from the knee bar (hyperextension of the knee), and heel lock (torsion, twisting). Immediate swelling and pain (severe) are common symptoms of a torn ACL.
Torn meniscus: the meniscus is a crescent shaped piece of cartilage sandwiched between your knee, its purpose is to cushion the impact between the lower leg and the thigh bone. It is also vulnerable to being torn when the knee hyperextends, or is twisted to the side. Unlike an ACL tear, in which the knee ‘gives way’, with a torn meniscus the knee feels ‘locked’ and unable to move at all.
Dislocated kneecap: when the knee twists in one direction, whilst the kneecap goes in the other, the kneecap may become dislocated from its proper position. Usually accompanied by injuries to the surrounding ligaments and cartilage. Another common injury where leg locks are performed.

Injuries of overuse: if you’ve been grappling for many years, you will likely have experienced quite a bit of wear and tear to your knee over that time. If you suffer dull and aching pain, as well as stiffness in the knee, you might be suffering from osteoarthritis a degenerative condition in which the cartilage lining your joints begins to wear away exposing the bones underneath. Another source of chronic knee pain which can also result from overuse, is Patellofemoral Syndrome (PFS). This is where the kneecap/patella becomes misaligned, so that as you continually flex and extend your knee, the patella doesn’t track properly and is pulled off to the side, resulting in irritation plus wearing away of the cartilage beneath the kneecap. Again the major symptom is dull aching pain that increases after activity and prolonged INactivity.

Prevention and recovery
Prevention is better than cure, and maintaining strong, stable knees is the main way to avoid suffering these debilitating these injuries in the first place. This in turn is a matter of strengthening and exercising the muscles that support and stabilize the knee joint, namely your hamstrings, quadriceps, calves, glutes and more. There are plenty of exercises you can do to achieve this goal.

Learn also how to maintain proper alignment in your legs; this helps you avoid having the knee track off to one side, causing damage to the underlying cartilage. Again this is a matter of strengthening ALL your leg muscles, particularly the quadriceps, so that they engage in a balanced way, and thereby keep your knee in proper alignment with the femur.

A great exercise to strengthen your quadriceps is Isometric quad sets. Start by sitting on the floor (or lying on your back if that is more comfortable for you) with one leg stretched out in front of you. You can keep the other one straight as well or bend it at the knee. Then tighten the quad (thigh) muscles of the leg that is stretched out by pressing the back of your knee against the floor. You can place a rolled up towel under your knee if it is painful to do this exercise without it. Hold your knee pressed down to the floor for about 5 seconds and then release. Repeat it for 20 times and then do the same exercise with the other leg.

If your knee does get injured, on the other hand, and recovery becomes the name of the game, then these are the steps to follow:

Rest: stop what you are doing and take time out. Ice, compress and elevate the affected area until you can get to a doctor

Get it checked out: see a quality sport’s medicine doctor and get a proper diagnosis. They will also prescribe you with non-steroid, anti-inflammatory drugs to reduce the pain and swelling, whilst referring you to a physiotherapist. As well as will recommend the type of knee protection you should be wearing to not further aggravate your knee injury. For example, they might recommend you to just stick to wearing a knee sleeve, or they might also tell you to go hard-core and wear something similar to tactical knee pads, which have a lot of padding and will provide heavy-duty protection.

Rehabilitation: your physio will help you devise a training program to rebuild the strength in your knee. In order to avoid complications, be sure not to return to your previous activity levels too soon. Pace yourself, and gradually build up your activity levels. With the right approach and rehab program, you should be able to make a full recovery.

                               - Guest Post By: Mathew Foster -
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