Academy of Fencing Masters Blog

Art of Fencing, Art of Life

5 Common Fencing Injuries and How to Prevent Them

Common Fencing InjuriesFor all of the intellectual rigor that goes along with fencing, there’s certainly an element of physical rigor that goes along with this sport as well. Though we strongly believe that fencing is one of the safest sports out there (and there’s plenty of research to back that up), we also recognize that every sport has its share of common injuries. That’s because, even though fencing is truly a full body sport, you’re still using some the same parts of the body over and over again as you move and train.  Those parts of the body are naturally going to be more prone to injury.

The good news is that the fencer has plenty of resources to help the body stay fit and strong and active throughout the fencing process.

First things first – pokes are not a problem!

Though it seems intuitive to many people who are new to fencing, in truth pokes and stab wounds are just not common injuries in fencing. Even if fencers are playing around or training for fun, it’s just not a real concern. These are not sharp weapons, and early on in training we learn to respect their power for what they are. Also, fencing weapons are both dull and flexible. Upon a touch they will bend and through that they will absorb the energy of the hit. In addition there are a lot of layers of the protective clothing that fencers are wearing constantly, and those layers take a significant amount of the impact into them. So while during the bout some bruises might happen, we learn about most of them only after fact in the changing rooms. Rarely, a hit can be more painful that will require an icing, but usually fencers don’t even notice them in the heat of the bout. I carry arnica ointment with me all the time and it works miracles!

An easy thing to compare fencing weapons to as far as injuries are a baseball bat. Do you often hear of baseball players actually getting hit with bats? Even though they swing them and throw them down on the ground? Getting hit with a baseball bat is incredibly rare, and so is getting actually injured from the fencing sword. It just doesn’t happen. When it does, it’s not hard enough to cause injury through the protective gear we’re wearing. Just as a baseball player wears a helmet while the ball is being pitched right at their head, so too do fencers wear masks and gloves and jackets to protect their bodies from harm.

Bottom line – the weapons aren’t the issue when it comes to common fencing injuries. Even if it seems like they would be!

Common fencing injuries and how to address/prevent them

Now for the not so good stuff – the injuries! We’ll break down five common fencing injuries and how to either address them or prevent them altogether.

Bruises

Though fencing is by no means a full contact sport, there are going to be some bruises involved, especially for beginner fencers. Where bruises occur will often vary with the weapon. With sabre they can be on the arms and shoulders, and can be a little bigger as sabre is a slashing weapon. Since both epee and foil are point weapons, bruises tend to be small and round. Again, people don’t get seriously injured with fencing weapons, but bruises do happen. Epee does have a more rigid blade than foil or sabre, so many fencers say that it causes bruises that sting more, but nothing too far gone in our experience.

Fingers, front leg and hands tend to get hit the most. It’s common for fencers to deal with bruises on the knuckles, hand, and wrists, no matter what the weapon.The hand that is not holding the weapon gets least bruises as it is farther from the opponent. So not having a glove is ok. Most of the time when the non armed hand is bruised it’s with a beginner fencer who might guard their chest with the non-weapon arm out of instinct. With more advanced fencers this rarely happens, if at all. One thing that surprises many fencers is when a weapon hits on a pressure point on the hand or elbow. It can cause the whole lower arm to go numb and you might even drop your weapon! This is common in fencing and isn’t anything to really worry about. A little tingling and then the feeling comes right back.

The thing about bruises is that there’s not a hard and fast way to prevent them. That’s ok. One of the things that we learn as fencers is that we can tolerate and push through much more than we ever thought. While we certainly aren’t in this to harm one another, but a bruise from a typical fencing hit isn’t going to cause long term damage. Many don’t leave a mark and just sting when they happen.

Preventing bruises:

The best way to prevent fencing bruises is to practice! The better you get, the better you’ll defend and the fewer bruises you’ll find yourself getting. You will also cause much less bruises to your opponents as your point and power control becomes to be much better. Beginner fencers tend to cause more  and get more bruises than experienced fencers.

Treating bruises:

Minor bruises don’t necessarily need much treating. However if you’ve got something that’s bothering you, there’s always Tiger Balm as a method for addressing bruises. This is a remedy that’s used across the world by people in combat sports. Be sure to get the white kind of Tiger Balm instead of the orange stuff, which can stain your clothes. Simply rub it in and it will relieve much of the ache associated with fencing bruises. As I also wrote before, arnica gel or ointment work great as well and I always have one in my kid’s fencing bag.

Blisters and calluses

Another common minor injury that fencers often face are blisters and calluses. These might sound like not a big deal – I mean every sport has some kind of blister or callus that’s associated with it, however they can really hurt and impede a good performance if you’re not careful about it. Fencers tend to get calluses and blisters on their weapon hand from holding their weapon, and of course on their feet from moving around in those shoes.

Calluses are more of an unfortunate consequence of fencing than a real injury. Treatment for them should include using a pumice stone to wear them down if they become too cumbersome. Another treatment is that you can soak them in Epsom salts to soften them and ease any discomfort. Other than that, fencing callouses can actually be a blessing as they can potentially prevent blisters! Tough skin in tough places.

Preventing blisters:

The best way to prevent these is to make sure that everything is dry! Fencing shoes should never be worn if they’re damp from sweat or from washing. Blisters on the feet are the most likely place. However you might also find that you get blisters on your hands. Again, wet gloves, either from sweat or from washing, are the most common culprit. It’s critical that you make sure everything is dry! Use moleskin or powder to help prevent blisters as well, tactics that can be a real life saver!

Treating blisters:

The trick to treating blisters is to catch them as early as you can. The longer they go, they worse they’ll get!  Cover the blister in a bandage when you notice it to cushion it and prevent it from busting open. Don’t drain blisters, even though this can be tempting – you’ll risk infection. Keep it clean and covered and wait for it to subside. Then try to prevent it in the future!

3. “Fencer’s Elbow”

Overuse injuries are common in all sports. While there’s not exactly something called “fencer’s elbow”, the repeated motion of the weapon arm can cause use injuries that last and last. Tendonitis is a serious problem for fencers.

Tendonitis is when the tendons in a part of the body become inflamed, get microscopic tears, or just become irritated. It’s painful, and it can affect performance if you’re a fencer who’s competing. The cause of tendonitis in fencers is overuse, and it can be a serious issue as it’s hard to find time during the season to allow those tendons to settle down. Prevention is a big deal when it comes to this injury, and it’s one of the hardest things to prevent.

Pain from tendonitis can come on the outside of the elbow, the inside of the elbow, near the base of the thumb, or on the Achilles tendon. However for fencers, the most common is definitely the elbow. It can last from a few days to a few weeks, and you need a doctor to diagnose it accurately.

Preventing tendonitis:

There are lots of ways to prevent tendonitis. Here are just a few-

  • Always warm up thoroughly.
  • Learn to distinguish between an ache that’s muscles growing and actual injury. It’s hard, but with practice it’s a critical part of the process
  • Learn good technique
  • Watch your cross training, and increase it gradually.

Treating tendonitis:

Treating tendonitis generally comes with a doctor’s care. However you can always ice the area if you suspect that you’ve got inflammation, that’s just never a bad idea. Over the counter anti-inflammatory medicine (aspirin, ibuprofen, etc.), can help tremendously with the pain, but as always with any medical treatment advice your doctor. Severe tendonitis can require splinting the area to ensure that it’s alright. You’ll never go wrong when you work to prevent it!

Here’s a bit of personal experience. I developed right elbow tendonitis few years ago and neglected it till it became quite severe. I stopped training and for a few weeks did some exercises with a TheraBar Flex Bar, and it worked wonders. Stay tuned for the detailed post about how to treat “fencing elbow”.

4. Strained muscles and ligaments

An incredibly common injury for fencers are strained muscles and ligaments. It’s something that can happen in your legs, your back, your arms, your neck – really just about anywhere! That’s because you’ve got muscles all over your body that you’re using when you fence. This is truly a full body exercise – fencing doesn’t care what you need to do to get that point, and requires you to do everything possible in pursuit of that goal.

The most common strained muscles and ligaments in the fencer’s body are the hamstrings. These long muscles on the back of the legs are pushed and pulled constantly during fencing. Shoulders and the neck are other places that you as a fencer should take special consideration of. It’s so important that fencers work to prevent strained muscles and ligaments as a whole. You don’t want to find yourself in a bad situation, because these are injuries that not only really hurt, but they can keep you off the strip for an extended period of time.   

Preventing strained muscles and ligaments:

The biggest reason that strained muscles and ligaments happen is because of improper or too short stretching. Fencers need to spend a good deal of time loosening muscles! One thing you can do is to warm those muscles up before you start your stretch. This will allow you to go further and to make the stretches even more efficacious. You can run some laps or even do some jumping jacks. Keep it simple, but warm up!

Stretching is incredibly important. Splits are a big piece of stretching for fencers, as it will allow you to make your lunge longer by being flexible. Flexibility for fencers is so, so important for improving. Proper stretching can prevent strained muscles and ligaments. In fact, it’s your best defense against this injury!

Treating strained muscles and ligaments:

Pulled muscles take a long time to heal. It’s just the reality of this kind of injury. The best treatment for a pulled muscle is TIME. It’s one of those unfortunate but absolutely true things. You can definitely make things feel better in terms of inflammation with the application of ice and using over the counter anti-inflammatory medication as directed. But there is no cure for this ailment except patience. The muscle or ligament needs to be allowed time to heal. If you’re concerned, always check with your doctor.

The other thing that can happen if you don’t treat strained muscles and ligaments with the proper care is that they can eventually result in tears. That’s definitely something that you don’t want to be dealing with as torn muscles or ligaments require much more intervention medically. As always, take your time and allow yourself to recover from injuries! There are a wide variety of ways to train around pulled muscles or ligaments without risking further injury.  

5. Twisted knees and ankles

This is not that common fencing injury that we have to deal with in fencing, but anyway worth mentioning here. There’s a great deal of jumping around and movement that happens in fencing, both during the bout and especially during the training. This sometimes takes the form of twisted knees or ankles. This is especially might happen if the body is not properly warmed up and stretched. There’s no doubt about it – fencing requires us to hold our bodies in positions that are certainly unusual, if not actually unnatural. Learning these movements takes time and unending practice, and it’s especially true that beginning fencers can be too ambitious and push those leg movements further than they need to be pushed.

While you of course can’t prevent totally twisted knees and sprained ankles (accidents just happen sometimes), you can absolutely mitigate them and lessen their likelihood.

Preventing twisted knees and ankles:

Here are three ways to dramatically reduce your risk of getting a twisted knee or ankle –

  1. Practice your form at the club
  2. Work on your form with a coach
  3. Improve your form with cross training

Yes, the common thread there is FORM! Proper form is going to be the hands down most effective way to keep your ankles and knees from getting twisted. When you move your feet properly and hold your body in the way that your coach is coaching you to, you’ll prevent most injuries. That’s something that you can count on, and is a solid way to prevent the kinds of maladies.

Treating twisted knee and ankles:

Allowing yourself the time you need to heal is your best course of action in treating twisted knees and ankles. You don’t have to stay home from the club, but you definitely want to rest the injured area. There are plenty of ways to get something out of your fencing without actually further injuring yourself. Talk to your coach about how to make that happen.

There are three things to do at once when you twist a knee or ankle, and you can remember them with the acronym ICE.

  • Ice to reduce swelling
  • Compress with an elastic bandage
  • Elevate the injury

These things need to happen as soon as the injury occurs. Don’t wait! The more quickly you get this done, the better your outcome is going to be!

And of course, do not neglect going to a doctor if you see that the injury needs more and proper attention than just simple icing.

Proper Recovery

The most important thing that you want to be sure of is to allow the proper amount of time to recover in the event of an injury. There are no shortcuts here!

People tend to get back onto the strip much too soon. Even a partial injuries can cause serious problems if you keep pushing through. Don’t assume that an injury is going to get over itself. It won’t! And that extra pushing yourself is never going to be worth it in the long run. Many people think about how important it is for them to keep on practicing for a competition, and they don’t do everything that they need to in service of their injury. Talk to your doctors and you’ll find that you’re going to do more harm in the long term than benefit that you’ll get in the short term.

There’s a fine line between pushing yourself and sacrificing to get better for a competition and doing yourself real harm. However that line can get a bit blurred if you’re working hard for a competition.  Giving your injury time to heal itself does not mean completely stopping your training. Actually you can do a lot of training that avoids pressure on or using the injured part of your body. For example, if you have “fencer’s elbow” you can still do footwork exercises, and so on. Actually you can use this “downtime” to your advantage by focusing on the areas of your training that you didn’t have a chance to spend so much time on before. Look at this time as your opportunity to improve and reflect on your fencing and training practices.

Always remember that fencing is like chess! It’s just as much about strategy as it is about the physical aspect. There is always something for you to do, no matter how injured you might be or what might be going on! An injury should never keep you down, but you also shouldn’t push yourself too hard. Remember that you don’t need to! You can keep training without furthering your injury.

Fencing injuries happen, but we try to prevent them

Again, we want to emphasize that fencing is a sport that’s not prone to a great deal of injuries. However we also recognize that fencers need to be ready to address issues when they do come up and also to prevent them.

Always stay alert when you’re practicing. Work on your proper warmup and stretching. Put more emphasis on your flexibility and cross training. Though fencing is fun, we always want to be attuned to the possibility of an injury.

It’s of critical importance that you stay vigilant whenever you’re on the strip to prevent injuries. Focus and control are the hallmarks of safety. If there’s a magic bullet for preventing injuries, those are definitely it. Stay informed and stay safe out there fencers!

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9 Comments

  1. R

    Bruises: Calendua. Tendonitis: Elbow gel-pac and OTC specialized brace.

  2. Ag

    Doctors diagnosed a severe tendonitis and ankle sprain, can I find a way to practice fencing (sabre) without – of course – taking any shortcuts on the healing process?

    • Igor Chirashnya

      Hi Ag, we recommend reducing any pressure on the ankle and let it heal completely. You can do private lessons or target work that exclude movements (some coaches will give you a lesson on chair), and of course you can do upper body conditioning. Also, watch training and fencing videos, this always works! Wish you to recover fast!

      • Ag

        Thanks a lot! Relieved to hear that it’s still doable to practice bladework whilst sticking to the healing and recovering program the physio set up for me. I started working on the videos we recorded from the latest lessons. Do you have any recommendations about drills that I can practice (aside from private lessons)?

        • Igor Chirashnya

          Hi Ag, glad you know how to progress. I recommend talking to your coach about the drills; he or she will know exactly what you need based on where you are.

          • Ag

            Thank you so much Igor for your wise advices, it’s been a few weeks now since I’ve been diagnosed this injury. Physio says I can slowly and carefuly go back to training. I went to practice every now and then since the beginning of the season, kept a beginner’s mind and learnt from my teammates, got a few lessons, drills and bouting on a chair, I even tried foil for a few sessions, and worked on an electronic target for a while. And I’m so happy to see how focusing on bladework helped me improve my defense already.

          • Igor Chirashnya

            Glad to hear it! Good luck with your recovery!

  3. Jay

    Hi I have spasms and pain in my shoulder and wrist while practicing during private lesson. However, I don’t have pains like these until I practice with one particular coach. I am doing repeated perry attacks action through out the lesson without a change in motion. I fill as though this is deliberate. He then forces me to carry on without stopping. I feel sabatoged really. I don’t want to have any severe irriversible damages in which I fill is someones goal. What would you do?

    • Igor Chirashnya

      Hi Jay, I believe you answered your question yourself. If you feel that private lessons with that coach cause harm more than help, stop taking lessons with that coach.

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