Form of martial arts found to help with PTSD

Published: May. 16, 2017 at 3:44 PM EDT
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At least 15% of US military servicemen and women suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD.

Intense psychotherapy and medication are the traditional therapies.

But now, researchers are studying the impact of one form of martial arts on veterans.

Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu is more than just combative martial arts for Army veteran Jacob King.

“I lost some friends oversees. That was really difficult for me to cope with,” says King.

Jiu-Jitsu is helping him battle PTSD.

About 15% who served in Operation Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom have PTSD. Gulf War veterans: 12%. And the Vietnam War: 15%.

University of South Florida professor Alison Willing says costly intense therapy and medication has a low success rate. This is why she’s studying the effects of Jiu-Jitsu on PTSD.

“The effects of this first study were so dramatic. The PTSD scores on all of the valid scales were getting so much better to the point where you don’t usually see with traditional PTSD therapies,” explains Alison Willing, a professor at the USF Center of Aging and Brain Repair.

Jacob’s headaches and sleepless nights have pretty much gone away.

“I feel good. I haven’t felt this way since before the military before Afghanistan, before everything. I feel okay,” King says, “This is what’s holding me together right now.”

Jiu-Jitsu is the sport that may be Jacob’s best defense against the symptoms of PTSD.

Professor Willing says as the study continues they’ll have a better idea of how often the Jiu-Jitsu will need to be done for veterans to feel the continued effects.

Research Summary

BACKGROUND: PTSD (post- traumatic stress disorder) is a mental health problem that some people develop after experiencing or witnessing a life-threatening event, like combat, a natural disaster, a car accident, or sexual assault. It’s normal to feel on edge after a traumatic event, but if it doesn’t subside after a few weeks and the symptoms go on for months, you may have PTSD. The symptoms of PTSD are reliving the event through flashbacks, bad memories, or nightmares. Avoiding situations that remind you of the event is common, or avoiding thinking and talking about it all together. Having negative feelings about yourself is a symptom, as is hyperarousal (feeling jittery, on the lookout for danger, trouble concentrating or sleeping, feeling angry and irritable, or startling easily). Other health problems include depression, anxiety, feelings of hopelessness, chronic pain, and relationship problems. (Source:

TREATMENT: The usual treatments for PTSD are psychotherapy or counseling with a therapist, or taking medications that are meant to help with depression. But a different treatment might be a better option for some. Alison Willing, a University of South Florida Health professor, conducted a study on the possible respite of PTSD through the practice of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, as well as traditional exercise. Willing said the study came together when many veterans who train at Tampa Jiu Jitsu, a local gym, reported the benefits they saw from the martial art for their PTSD symptoms. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, exercise is vital for remaining mentally fit and reducing stress because it releases endorphins, which are the body’s natural painkillers. The aim of the study was to hopefully create a more efficient method of treating the symptoms of PTSD. Most traditional remedies are both costly and time consuming. The study is designed to alleviate the symptoms of PTSD, rather than attempting to cure the disorder, and for some veterans it is proving to be their best option to eliminate sleepless nights.


VETERANS STATISTICS: Operations Iraqi Freedom (OIF) and Enduring Freedom (OEF): About 11-20 percent of Veterans who served in OIF or OEF have PTSD in a given year. Gulf War (Desert Storm): About 12 percent of Gulf War Veterans have PTSD in a given year. Vietnam War: About 15 percent of Vietnam Veterans were currently diagnosed with PTSD at the time of the most recent study in the late 1980s, the National Vietnam Veterans Readjustment Study (NVVRS). It is estimated that about 30 percent of Vietnam Veterans have had PTSD in their lifetime.