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Sports

It's Easier Than You Think to Break Your Arm While Arm Wrestling

There was a loud crack, then the room fell silent. I tried to pull my arm back into my lap, but it was moving in ways an arm is not supposed to move.
April 3, 2015, 5:25pm

The author's broken arm X-rays

A few weeks ago, at an impromptu arm wrestling match following the Iditarod race in Nome, Alaska, a woman named Grace Liu had her arm snapped. According to the Alaska Dispatch News, "There was a sickening pop, followed by an eerie silence" as everyone realized that Grace's arm had broken.

If this sounds like a bit much, then you've obviously never seen the scores of YouTube videos documenting this exact thing (watch at your own risk). Arm wrestling matches break a handful of arms every year, and it's much easier to do than you'd think. I should know, because it happened to me.

It was Christmas Eve and I was spending the holiday with my best friend and his family. My girlfriend and I had broken up three months earlier, and I was getting over that and trying to boost my testosterone by working out with my friends. With newfound competitiveness, arm wrestling became our new pastime, and we'd decided to set up a tournament for Christmas Eve.

Everyone gathered around the dinner table as I muscled my way to an easy victory against my best friend's brother. My friend was the next to sit in the challenger's seat. I changed it up and used my fresh, but non-dominant, left arm. This match proved to be a struggle, but my competitive drive surged as everyone cheered on, and I gave my final push toward victory.

I should mention that I'm not a very big guy. And in spite of the weightlifting, I never really got ripped. If you look at the video below, you can see that I'm poorly matched when you compare my arms to the thicker arms of my friend—but I felt like I had strength and strategy going for me. With enough effort, I was pretty sure I could turn the tide of the match.

But the laws of physics were having none of it. There was a loud crack. The room fell silent.

Warning: The below video features a guy's arm being broken

The author's fateful arm wrestling match

I remember a surge of pain, then grabbing my arm and pulling it into my lap. It was moving in ways an arm is not supposed to move. Confusion permeated the room, and everyone looked queasy watching my arm flail around. Then the panicked realization set in that holiday fun time was over. Someone—I don't quite remember who—called 9-1-1 and an ambulance arrived.

It turns out a broken arm isn't enough to get you seen immediately and I had to wait eight hours in the ER before anyone started to fix me. It was enough time for my family to arrive, and for my arm, shoulder, and neck to their own aches and pains as I contorted my whole body to compensate for the injury and resulting swelling. When I was finally called back, the nurses painfully tugged on my arm as they took X-rays. The ER doctor reviewed my file, confirmed that this was serious, and—at last—flooded my IV line with pain meds.

I woke up in the hospital room where I would spend the next two days. I'm told that during this time I was visited by many family and friends—and even had a phone call with my ex-girlfriend, who agreed to give it another shot with me after I recovered. I would go on to have surgery, which required a donor bone from a cadaver, a metal plate, and eight metal screws to repair the break. Even my surgeon was shocked by the damage inflicted in something that's supposed to be a fairly playful competition.

While my arm-snappage was pretty severe, it doesn't seem completely uncommon. According to Dr. Clark Holmes, a board-certified sports medicine physician in Nashville, "There's a characteristic pattern that occurs with an arm wrestling injury." That pattern looks something like this: Your elbow is fixed to the table and you're very forcefully rotating your shoulder as your try to pin your opponent's arm down. "So your elbow can't rotate, but you're rotating the shoulder, and you get this tremendous torque across the humeral shaft."

Often, this results in a humeral shaft fracture—something that Holmes says is common enough in the sport of arm wrestling that there's a fair amount of medical literature about it. And indeed, there is: A study from 2014 warns that "arm wrestling has been recognized as a popular and potentially dangerous competition" and claims that "reports on injuries related to arm wrestling are increasing." There are a few other studies like this, and interestingly, a whole slew of arm wrestling injury research from the 70s and 80s (like this study, which has the witty title "Arm Wrestling Fractures—A Humerus Twist").

Holmes added that arm wrestling injuries like mine aren't really preventable—they kind of come with the territory. "Unless you completely change the rules of arm wrestling, I would say it's a buyer beware," he says. "There's certainly a risk to it, and a fair number of injuries come with it."

Most of the time, these injuries don't end up as severe as mine. Even after I healed, I was left with a pretty gruesome scar. But the ex-girlfriend and I did end up going out again once I could get back into normal clothes, and that turned out to be the right move: We've been happily married for seven years. I know it puts a cliché little bow on things, but it's true: Breaking my arm might've been the best thing that ever happened to me.