The reality of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu and Cauliflower Ear

I started training Brazilian Jiu Jitsu almost 15 years ago. Since then, I've had 2 major incidents that have caused serious issues with my ears. My first experience was when I was a new white belt.  Another white belt caught me in a tight triangle choke and of course being a new white belt, I had no idea how to escape and pulled my head out of the triangle with every bit of strength I had. In doing so, I felt my ear fold over as I pulled my head out following by excruciating pain in the upper ear. I could then immediately feel my ear get really warm and almost throb. I was able to continue training and it was probably the adrenaline that made me forget about the aforementioned incident until I put my head down on my pillow. The pain was so severe that I could not sleep that night. Little did I know, I was dealing with what could have been the beginning of cauliflower ear. My ear hurt for the next few days but fortunately did not develop beyond that and I was able to get back to training within a few days.

Flash forward to being a blue belt and again I found myself caught in a deep triangle. By now I knew not to just rip my head out but to find a technical escape. Well, it was pretty tight and my opponent continued to squeeze and squeeze until I ultimately submitted to the choke and the pressure. Most of the pressure, unfortunately, was directly on my ear and once again, I felt the same pain I experience several years prior. This time it was different because the pain didn't subside and I could no longer train. Later on in the day, my ear began to slightly swell, it was filling with blood and I knew I had to do something ASAP. 

I made my way to Urgent Care and after sitting in the waiting room for about an hour I was called in. I explained my situation to the nurse but she had no idea how to enter Brazilian jiu-jitsu into the computer and what that had to do with my ear. She did give me an ice pack though and that gave me some temporary relief while I waited for the Doctor. When the Doctor arrived, he examined me, looked confused but didn't seem to know what to do. I suggested that it should probably be drained and he obliged. He drained my ear, told me to take some over the counter pain killers and sent me on my way.

By the next day, my ear was once again swollen. Draining my ear made the swelling go away but didn't stop it from filling again. So back in Urgent Care I was this time with a different Doctor. His suggestion was to drain and then suture (stitch) my ear shut to prevent it from filling with blood again. Awesome and by awesome I mean it sucked. My ear hurt bad enough as it was but now he's tugging and pulling at it trying to sew it shut. I walked out of the urgent care with stitches in my ear, my ear bandaged and a throbbing headache. The worst part of it all was that I couldn't get back on the mat until my ear completely healed and the stitches removed. That was almost 4 weeks of no training!

You may ask, "why didn't you train with headgear". The simple answer is that training with headgear sucks. It sucks because its uncomfortable in Jiu Jitsu. It can get in the way, gets moved around a lot and you can sometimes get choked from the straps. Also, it can be uncomfortable on your training partners. Try getting stuck in side control with your opponent wearing hard plastic headgear while they grind it into the side of your face and ear. It's no fun!

Here's another reason why training with headgear is a bad idea. Headgear is illegal in most BJJ competitions! Here's the actual rule from the IBJJF handbook:

8.3.7  Use of any foot gear, headgear, hair pins, jewelry, cups (genital protectors), or any other protector fashioned of hard material that may cause harm to an opponent or the athlete him/herself is forbidden. Also forbidden is the use of eyes protectors, even if they are made for sports practices.

So if you're gonna train for a tournament, it's best to train the way you will fight. That means no headgear or even a rashguard under your gi. That also means that you could experience ear trauma while in competition.

If you enter the competition with even the slightest ear trauma, there is the possibility that you can experience continued ear trauma because you cannot compete with headgear. If things get too severe and you happen to bleed, you may not be allowed to continue competing. Check out rule 2.2.4 below:

2.2.4 When an athlete presents bleeding that cannot be contained after being treated by the doctor on 2 (two) occasions, to which each athlete has the right for each injury and should be provided upon the referee’s request. 

The image below is an example of the lengths you'll need to go to prevent your Cauliflower ear from disqualifying you in competition. Marcio Feitos meets Rubens Charles at the World Championships in 2006. Marcio's ear was so damaged from training that it began to bleed. Knowing that bleeding would cause a stoppage, the medical team wrapped his head like a mummy! 

Marcio feitosa World championships cauliflower ear

The reality is that if you train in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, the chances of experiencing ear trauma and or cauliflower ear is extremely high. Without any practical reason to wear headgear, the best option is to have Caulicure on hand to control the development of Cauliflower ear in the event of ear trauma so you don't have to get your ear drained, sutured and you can get back to training ASAP!

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