Joint Locks Considered Dangerous

Over the past week, Seattle’s recent “jaywalking rumble” has gained worldwide interest. It has provoked a spirited debate, among martial artists and the public at large, over the limits of reasonable force. Some believe that the police officer’s punch was brutally excessive, and that some form of joint lock would have been more appropriate. The following article expresses my dissenting view.


In the martial arts, a “joint lock” is a technique that targets a joint in an opponent’s body, holding it near or outside its normal range of motion. The purpose of a joint lock is not to inflict harm, but to issue a credible threat of harm. The recipient of a joint lock is expected to submit: to move, or to stop moving, as directed by the applicant.

Locking techniques exist for nearly every joint in the human body. Depending on the technique selected, the recipient may or may not be physically immobilized (“locked”) upon application. The recipient may or may not experience significant pain, as a signal to comply, before the onset of bone or soft tissue damage.

Joint locks can be applied in the context of combat sport, law enforcement, or self-defense. The use of joint locks is usually restricted in fighting competitions, due to the high risk of injury.

Joint Locks for Pain Compliance and Restraint

The use of the joint lock as a “nonviolent” coercion method–and an alternative to striking–is complicated by a number of factors. First, their difficulty: locking a particular joint requires a skillful positioning of the target’s neighboring joints, and of their entire body. This is especially true in the case of standing locks, where the applicant is in danger of being struck immediately in response, or thrown to the ground.

Whereas a imperfectly executed punch or kick is somewhat less effective for its flaws, an improperly applied joint lock may be completely useless–accomplishing nothing more than to present an opportunity for counterattack. This first challenge can be mitigated with sufficient training, but the next cannot.

Second, the experience of pain is idiosyncratic. A target may be so strong, so flexible, or so emotionally disturbed that no safety buffer between pain and damage can be found. Without the pain, there is no immediate and visceral threat, and no apparent necessity to submit. The target may struggle violently against the hold, placing themselves at risk, inadvertently or out of spite. Observers are then left to wonder how a supposedly nonviolent restraint resulted in a dislocated shoulder, or a broken elbow, or worse.

Finally, while locking and holding the target’s joint in place, the applicant is sacrificing their own mobility. This is a significant risk when multiple potential threats are present.


When martial artists practice joint locking methods, they rarely apply them to a worst-case conclusion. In training, the target submits before any damage is done, so that practice can continue. Unfortunately, this tends to support a belief that locking techniques are both safe and reliable. In truth, these are risky techniques made safer by mutual cooperation. When that cooperation is withdrawn–as one can rightfully expect in street confrontations–the joint lock must be considered dangerous.

7 comments on “Joint Locks Considered Dangerous”

  1. But applying a joint lock in THAT situation would have had the effect of tying up at least one of his limbs as well, while he was in the middle of a hostile crowd. That might not have been a good thing.

  2. can anyone plese tell me the points attackin on which lock occurs.

  3. Agree that joint locks can be very effective. I saw a bouncer pin one guy face down with a one-handed behind-the-back joint lock and with the other hand use a wicked left jab to nearly knock out the other attacker, all before I could get my jacket off to come to the aid of the bouncer–he obviously did not need my help. I will admit that in the situation in Seattle the officer was heavily outnumbered, so I too question the use of a joint lock in that situation.

  4. My Head instructor in Hakkoryu JuJutsu-is A State Trooper-when the upper belts work out with him we get to learn arresting techniques-and how pian complience really works-I’m sure glad that I’am a law abideing citizen–lol-

  5. As I understand the purpose of joint “locks” is to practice safely in the dojo. The techniques you are practicing in this safe and friendly environment are not intended to be locks but to generate severely damaging spiral fractures. I know that these techniques have been softened to be more acceptable to the public and for less-violent application by law enforcement but the real development, as I have had it explained by several of my teachers, is to put yourself in position and to immediately apply an appropriately directed short-explosive force against the direction of the joint. Thats why they “don’t work”, because they end up being used inappropriately. At least that’s my understanding, flawed as it may be.

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