How to Practice Karate with Joint Pain (Osteoarthritis)

Do you feel joint pain when practicing Karate?

Perhaps you have osteoarthritis.

Osteoarthritis is a scientific way to say “chronic joint inflammation”.

Usually, people older than 50 get this condition. But it’s common for people in their 20s and 30s to get it too if they do contact sports.

Karate is no exception.

In Karate, the most common joints affected by osteoarthritis are the knees and hips.

If your knees and hips hurt from deep stances and high kicks, you might have osteoarthritis.

But don’t worry – you’re in good company!

Masutatsu Oyama, the legendary founder of Kyokushin Karate, had terrible osteoarthritis. Despite this, he went on to become one of the world’s most iconic Karate fighters.

You can fight osteoarthritis too.

So, what causes osteoarthritis?

Although osteoarthritis is more common in older people, aging isn’t a huge factor.

Instead, it’s the heavy impact and rotational forces on your joint that causes it. This is why people in martial arts and contact sports get osteoarthritis more often.

Simply put – your joint cartilage breaks down faster than it recovers.

Over time, this damage adds up.

Reasons for this include:

  • High-impact and torsional loads on the knees and hips
  • Repetitive moves that stress the joints
  • Injuring your joint(s) in the past
  • Poor muscle stabilization around the joint
  • Hard-style training that leaves little time for recovery
  • Genetic abnormality in the joint structure
  • Stress on one side of the joint due to muscle imbalance

These reasons are clues to how you can practice Karate with osteoarthritis.

10 Ways to Practice Karate with Osteoarthritis

If you’re still reading, it probably means you (or someone you know) suffers from osteoarthritis.

Let’s reclaim your Karate body!

In a nutshell, here’s the action plan:

  1. First, stabilize the joint structure.
  2. Secondly, reduce wear and tear in the joint.
  3. Lastly, practice Karate intelligently.

Here are 10 points that will help you:

#1 Strengthen the Muscles that Support Your Joint

When you have weak surrounding muscles, you rely on the joint to bear the whole load.

This is catastrophy for your cartilage.

What you need to do instead is to strengthen the muscles supporting your joint structure. Rely on them for stabilization.

For example, here’s a quick exercise for your hips and knees.

Double/Single Leg Bridges

Explanation: Lay on your back with your knees bent. Place your feet flat on the ground.

Then, while keeping your back straight, lift your butt upwards. Go slowly back down again.

Repeat for 4 to 6 reps (on the first try). If it feels OK, try another set, then one leg.

There are many exercises you can do. 

For best results, ask a physical therapist or personal trainer to help you design an individual training program.

#2 Mobility Exercises

It’s important to move your joint.

Some people think stretching is the solution, but that’s far from enough.

You see, the real problem is not flexibility…

It’s MOBILITY!

Mobility is your ability to move a joint through its full range of motion. You could call this “active” or “dynamic” flexibility.

I actually have an online program called Karate Flexibility & Mobility with 50 great exercises that I use myself on a daily basis.

Here’s an example:

You can download all exercises HERE.

#3 Use Joint Support

There are several tools you can use to support your joints.

Elastic sleeves and compressions garments are great for this purpose.

Why? Because they aid the muscles that protect your joint.

Also, wearing a brace helps you maintain the correct joint structure and alignment – even when you’re exhausted.

But don’t wear it all the time. You need to train the muscles without support too.

#4 Stay Fit & Active

Being overweight will speed up your cartilage wear, especially if combined with Karate practice.

So, unless you’re in great shape, ease down on the Karate training. Instead, take up a low impact exercise (like walking or swimming) to drop a few pounds first.

Then, gradually reintroduce Karate training while maintaining your active lifestyle.

As side effect, you might get a 6-pack.

And I’m not talking about beer. 😉

#5 Talk to Your Sensei, Doctor & Physical Therapist

Dealing with osteoarthritis involves making adjustments to your regular Karate training.

This means you need a dialogue with your sensei – and preferably communicate with a doctor or physical therapist too, so they’re all on the same page.

Because trust me – you WILL need to alter your Karate training. 

Or suffer the consequences.

#6 Modify (or Avoid) Karate Techniques

How exactly will you need to alter your Karate training?

Well, it depends on how severe your osteoarthritis is.

For some people, it might be enough to tone down the intensity. If deep stances hurt your knees, adopt a stance that’s less deep. For example, change your “zenkutsu dachi” (front stance) to “han-zenkutsu dachi” (half front stance).

For others, it might be necessary to avoid certain techniques altogether.

It’s case-by-case basis.

#7 Warm Up Longer Before Karate Training

Before Karate training, warm up the joint affected by osteoarthritis extra.

The regular warm up at the start of class is not enough. You need longer time.

Focus on easier versions of Karate techniques that normally cause discomfort.

For example; if kicking causes some discomfort, try drawing small circles with your foot. The rotation in your hip socket prepares you for greater range of motion. Then, swing your leg in a bigger circle. Then, do a gentle kick. Work your way up.

The key is “baby steps”.

#8 Maintain Proper Form & Posture

Always maintain proper form when performing your techniques.

Contrary to popular belief, proper form is not about aesthetics. It’s about function!

Correct structural alignment and posture ensures that integrity of your joint is kept intact. The moment you’re out of form, you cause unnecessary torsion loads that aggravate the joint pain.

If you’re too tired to maintain correct form, ask for permission to go slower or simply take a break.

A good instructor will understand.

#9 Anti-Inflammatory Medication & Treatment

Even if you follow all the steps above, your joint can still get inflamed.

Why? Because life is not fair.

To deal with this, you might need anti-inflammatory drugs. Ask your doctor what’s best for you.

Personally, I prefer topical treatment, like cream and gel, over pills and injections.

But try not to become dependant on it.

#10 Switch to a Different Style of Karate

I have to be honest.

Although studies show that Karate is less damaging on your joints than other martial arts, some Karate styles are more unforgiving than others.

Some Okinawan styles in particular, like Uechi-ryu, have waaaaaay less physical demands on your joints compared to modern Japanese styles like Shotokan.

If your current style worsens your osteoarthritis, consider switching.

What’s most important – “your style” or your health?

To me, the answer is easy…

BONUS! #11 Stay Positive 🙂

Managing osteoarthritis while training can be depressing.

Changing the way you practice Karate can also be frustrating.

BUT STAY POSITIVE!

Don’t look back to the times when you did Karate before osteoarthritis. Take this as an opportunity to let your Karate evolve into something different, more sophisticated.

Use your pain as source for growth.

That’s the Karate spirit.

Good luck!

34 Comments

  • Great article Jesse. I have been active my whole life and just starting to get arthritis in my left knee. Probably because of my active life! Perfect article at the perfect time for me! Many thanks.
    • "The master appears when the student is ready", as the ancient saying goes. Good luck Roland-san and thanks for commenting!
  • Brian Rich
    Very good article! I am 69, had both knees and one hip replaced (arthritis), and have arthritic shoulders too. I am able to train pain free daily with no modifications - as long as I warm up, prioritize good form, and, believe it or not, a strict Paleo diet (no sugar nor processed carbs), and daily use of turmeric, coconut oil, and black pepper. My style is JKA Shotokan. I have been training since 1972.
    • Agreed! Diet is not to be underestimated, Brian-san. I also recommend paleo - keep it up! :)
  • I use to get a burning in one knee,almost like haveing a tooth ache ,i tried different supplements some helped a bit but this one supplement, joint armour works the best i been useing it for 3 years now and and soreness i have is the good kind (good karate class ) i haven,t stop takeing it so i don,t or can,t answer if the excerise contrubute to the disaperance. Thanks
    • Glad to hear you found what works best for you, William-san!
  • wendell
    Nice review. It should be helpful to all of us older than 45 yo. I am a surgeon who has been practicing some form of MA for the past 40 years ( I have had arthritis since my 20's ). I have made adjustments throughout these years ( similar to what you have outlined) and continue to do so as I am 63 years of age. Although, I am not a pretty and a little stiffer with my higher stances ( when compared to my younger years ) , I still participate in tournaments a couple times per year ( for the fun ). thanks , keep up the good work you do .
    • That's excellent Wendell-san! I believe Karate is an individual journey, and it's important to find what works for you. Keep at it!
    • Glad you like it Philip-san! Thanks for chiming in.
  • Freddy
    Very interesting article. I'm almost 58 and have been practicing Shito ryu karate since 1988. Through the years, some techniques have become more difficult to perform. That's just fine, you adapt. No need for high kicks at my age. Stances are perhaps no so deep, but who cares. It's important to stay at it, I think. I avoid exercises which are too demanding on my knees. Or, I do them not so deep as the young guys. Besides karate, I've been practicing Tai ji quan for about 10 years now. Stances are the same, but done with softness. I started Tai ji because I thought I would have to stop karate because my knees were hurting. This art is very good for posture and body alignment. But now in 2017... I'm still into both arts. It's important to keep moving.
    • Agree 100% Freddy-san. Keep up the "cross training"!
  • Bk
    You missed one: get a new hip, preferably resurfacing, and get it done by top surgeons like dr de Smet in Belgium or Su in NY. The'll give you a new karate life.
    • I'm hoping it doesn't have to get that far. Glass half full, Bk-san! ;-)
  • Lisa
    Any advice if the arthritis is in your neck???
    • Same advice, just adapt it to suit your situation Lisa-san. Good luck!
  • Hi Jesse.I am 52 and and a brand new 3rd grade (dan) of Karate Jutsu. I am suffering of a severe osteoarthritis on my both knees and for several weeks to the right ankle Anyway I keep on working and take care to my practising.Your article is very interesting as all your articles. I am the webmaster of a well known website talking of the specific karaté I am practising in France, obviously this is a free blog.As your article is very interesting, I would like to translate it in french and displaying it on my own website. Obviously I would quote karatebyjesse.com as the source of the article. Do you mind if I do that ?Regards, Chrstian.
  • Jim Harper
    Hi Jesse, Thanks for this article. I started Shorin-Ryu Karate 4 months back at age 60. My issue is I was a runner doing 6 to 8 mile runs a day until my early 40s and my knees gave out. Moved on to biking and windsurfing from there. My lifestyle has been fairly sedentary for the last 10 years until my 15 year old daughter got her Jr. Black Belt. She inspired me to get back into sports and I have to say I love learning and doing Karate.You'er exactly right with this article. Before reading this I have been starting my warm-ups earlier and progressively increasing the intensity and extension of my exercises. I'm seeing progress with reducing the knee pain I occasionally experience. As others have said diet needs to be part of the solution, whole unprocessed foods are the key.Thanks again this was very a helpful article. It has reinforced other non-karate research I've been finding.
  • Eric
    Hello Sensei Jesse, I was diagnosed with rhumatoid arthritis abut a year after I started karate training for the first time at the age of 44. I use my training to help control the inflammation and pain along with diet. My thinking is if you don't use it, you lose it. Great tips to add to what I do to control the pain and inflammation. I'm 49 now and it's taking me long time to advance, but now it's not about advancement but about maintaining physical health. Thank you for how much you share, very helpful. Oss. Eric
  • Man, it's like you write this per my request!! I had a meniscus surgery a year ago and have been working on ways to adapt techniques. This article confirms I'm thinking correctly. Thanks Jesse-san!
  • Hi Sensei Jesse, thank you for a honest and candid article. Due to major osteoarthritis in my cervical, lumbar and feet, all of which are effecting he nerves has caused me to modify both the way I teach and train in Shotokan. My Sensei understands and is constantly "encouraging" me to change my stances and the way I execute techniques. Old habits (deep stances, strong hip rotation, etc.) are hard to lose...(smile) I'm now doing kihon and kata in a Tai Chi style to maintain flexibility and mobility in a non-jarring way. Thanks again for the article!
  • Tom Josef Müller
    As a physiotherapist I could recommend this to everyone. Thanks Hesse!
    • Tom Josef Müller
      Damm it. "Jesse" of cause... German autocorrection sucks :D
  • Tomas Lundell
    Good article, i have issues with both muscle and joints. Some days worst then other, but i drag my body over the dojo as often as I can becuase the training help with the pain and energy from the other in the dojo helps out too.
  • ron
    very good reading my hip gives out shoulder wrist knuckel joimts my wrist is very bad i feel useless im only 68,all those hard years punching and kicking things that i should not have,but i enjoyed doing it,you are a very talent young man and careing thank you kind regards ossu
  • Jim
    Great article jesse, am recovering from an injury caused by being hit by a bus, and was working out how to develop a training regime which enables me to start building into it in a manner which takes into account that one of my legs is recovering from a knock.
  • Johnny
    Great read, I have been battling a thing called costochondritis for over a year now and this article really makes sense for my predicament ?
  • Ramunas
    Great article. Very good advices. Flexibility from Jesse lessons works fine for me. Being 51 i improve my stances and kicks.
  • Steve
    Perfect timing for this article, Jesse. I'm recovering from Arthroscopy of my knee, just 4hrs ago! My knee collapsed just last week. Thank you, it was starting to cross my mind that my karate may have to stop, but clearly not. A lot of the previous comments have also lifted my spirits and reassured me that I'll be able to continue, so Thank You to you all.
    • Ramunas
      Hello Steve. Welcome to our "club". Was in the same situation 9 months ago. Long way to recover properly. Especially to stop the fear -"it can happen again". Let's keep Karate way. Oss.
  • Salima
    thank you for another great article! I have had joint pain since my teenage years but wasn't diagnosed with osteoarthritis until I was in my 30's. I started karate at 38 and was lucky enough to have a sensei that was understanding and helped me modify certain techniques. At 45 I'm in constant pain but I keep plugging along. I refuse to give up! If you find something you are passionate about, you will find a way to keep it in your life. Best of luck out there to all my fellow martial arts practitioners that are also working through the pain!
  • Very informative article ... very true what is written. I m 48 yrs and just did my second total hip replacement. Had this coming from younger age due to genetic abnormality in the hip joints. Shotokan practice for sure helped the joints to deteriorate quickly. Life style has totally changed, still planning to continue practice the art i love. Doing my best to recover at the moment. First Op was 5 months ago, second was 3 weeks ago. Already feeling better, but very careful now what to do. Hopefully this experience will serve me and others to take life more easy. Thank you for the article and keep it up.
  • steve hindle
    Good article,Jesse, However I would advise against topical creams/gel over internal medication,was put right on this by a chemist,who confessed that very little if any of the NSAID ingredients get through the skin in to the deep tissue of the joints.If you think about it that's how skin protects. Tiger balm works because it stimulates the bodies own painkillers to the source.I used to study traditional japanese karate, with long stances and emphasis on speed,power,also Aikido,but stopped due to serious neck injury.Over time developed Osteo arthritis at the base of both thumbs,this is the most common,then later left hip had to be resurfaced. I told my surgeon if he could fix my pain, I would take up karate again,he was happy with that,saying" use it or lose it,"th,e physio exercises were so similar.I now train Okinawan Goju ryu, hojo undo as well with very few problems,as stances are more upright and emphasis on soft over hard progression..Had another hip done this time ceramic on ceramic,my surgeon customised the stem for martial art mobility,its actually better than the resurfaced now.I feel for those of you who are new to OA, DONT GIVE UP,just modify and pace your training, no limits just good sense and mobility.Osu.
  • Fran
    Thank you for this article. I took up traditional karate 6 years ago (I'm now 44) and have osteoarthritis of the sacroiliac joints so get lower back pain. Recently I also got it in my ankle so you can imagine the difficulties this presents. I went to see my sensei on Monday, telling him I didn't know if I'd ever be able to do karate again but left saying I'd see how I feel when this flare up has gone. Having read this, there is at least hope!

Leave a comment