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Common Rock Climbing Injuries: How to prevent & Treat Them

Common Rock Climbing Injuries: How to prevent & Treat Them

Even if you have spent the winter at an indoor climbing wall, if you are a serious rock climber, you are likely antsy to get out and start rock climbing. Whether the weather in your area allows for great rock climbing now or you still have a few weeks until it is warm enough to start climbing, now is a great time to begin preparing. One of the top ways you can prepare is to focus on injury prevention.

Prior to Rock Climbing Season

Right now, one of the keys to rock climbing injury prevention is to get your body ready physically. This means focusing on strengthening the parts of your body most likely to be injured while climbing. This includes the hands and shoulders.

The Hands
The hands and fingers can easily be injured while rock climbing if they are not properly strengthened. One way to strengthen the hands and fingers is through hangboarding. If you are a new climber or you have injured your fingers previously, be extra careful to not overdo it.
Every hangboarding session should begin with a warm-up, preferably about 30 minutes of easy bouldering. When a climbing surface is not available, a stress ball or other object can also be used to warm-up your fingers. In the beginning, do ten sets of five hangs each. Hang for ten seconds. Rest for five seconds. After five hangs, rest for three minutes. Continue the same pattern for the other nine sets.
Once you have completed a hang, do not just drop to the ground. Instead, lower your feet to the ground, and let go. It is fine to hang for less time or to do fewer sets, particularly when you are new to hangboarding.
The Shoulders
It is important to also strengthen your shoulder muscles. Exercises that encourage the full motion of the shoulder muscles and that incorporate light weights can help to strengthen the shoulders. This video by Climbing Magazine demonstrates three exercises you can do now to start strengthening your shoulder muscles.


During Climbing Season

Like many workouts, one of the most important ways to avoid a climbing injury is to always warm-up and stretch properly before climbing. Ten to fifteen minutes of light cardio followed by stretching should get your body ready to begin climbing. The walk to the crag could be enough of a cardio workout to get your blood flowing properly, but you should still do stretches before attempting to climb. Once you have done your warm-up and stretching, do a few easy climbing procedures before attempting the more difficult climbs.

While it is important to climb regularly to maintain your endurance, it is also important to not overdo it. After a tiring climb, give your body at least 48 hours to recover before attempting to climb again. If your body continues to feel sore, take another day or two off to avoid injuring yourself. Avoid doing too much too quickly. If it is your first climb of the season, you are coming off an injury, or you otherwise have not climbed for a while, take it slowly. It will take a while to rebuild your endurance.

Using proper technique is another way you can decrease your chances of having an injury. One important thing is to have good climbing posture. This includes bending your knees and straightening your arms. Then you are putting more of your weight on your legs and less weight on your shoulders and arms. You should also avoid putting added pressure on your joints, including your finger, elbow, and shoulder joints.  

Cool Down
Your cool down is another important part of your climbing injury prevention. Be sure to stretch after completing your climb, or you may find yourself with stiff muscles the next day. If you are sore a day or two after a climb, stretching out sore muscles and icing them can help to prevent a serious injury.


Treating Climbing Injuries

Unfortunately, rock climbing injuries do happen, even when you have physically prepared for the season and worked to be a safe climber. If that is the case, it is important to treat your injuries.

Many of the most common rock climbing injuries involve the fingers. The three most common climbing finger injuries are an A2 pulley injury, flexor tendon tears, and collateral ligament strains.

A2 pulley injuries often happen when your foot slips while climbing, and added pressure is placed upon the hand. You may hear a “pop,” which is followed by pain and immediate swelling. The injured fingers may later bruise.

The flexor tendons allow you to bend your hands and flex your fingers. When there is a tear, you will likely feel the most pain in the palm and wrist, but you may either be unable to bend one or more joints in your finger or feel numbness or tenderness in that finger. The most serious flexor tendon tears will need to be treated with surgery.

Collateral ligament strains happen most often when sideways loading, such as when you are holding on with one hand while throwing the other hand out to hold with it. Generally, the pain will be felt in the middle joint of the middle finger. Unfortunately, the most severe cases will require surgery.

Treating Finger Injuries
With all three injuries, you should stop climbing right away. The sooner you rest the injury, the less likely you will injure it more. If there is bruising or if the joint is unstable, see a doctor right away. If there is no bruising and the joint appears stable, you may be able to treat your injury at home. Place your injured fingers in an ice bath for about ten minutes at a time three to five times a day. Along with this, do range-of-motion exercises, including stretching and flexing the affected fingers. You may also want to take anti-inflammatory pain medication.  

If the injury does not improve within about five to seven days, contact a doctor. Your doctor may use an MRI or ultrasound to assess the extent of the damage. To avoid reinjuring your fingers, slowly ease back into rock climbing, even if you treated your injured fingers without the help of a doctor. Do easier routes in the beginning. You may also need to tape the injured fingers, to give them more stability after the injury. In general, it will take about four to six weeks for your injury to heal. Even if you feel better before that point, for your own safety, hold off a little longer before returning to rock climbing.

A healthy rotator cuff is important to climbing safety. Unfortunately, it is also a part of the body that can get injured while climbing. Rotator cuff problems include both tendonitis and a rotator cuff tear.

With tendonitis, you might not feel a weakness in your shoulder, but it might hurt to use it. The pain may be all along the outside of the upper arm, even extending as far as the elbow. Lifting your arm may increase the pain, and the pain might intensify with time.

With a rotator cuff tear, you may experience some of the same symptoms. With a more severe tear, you may have limited range-of-motion, including an inability to raise your arm because of weakness or extreme pain. You may also hear a popping sound or feel a tearing sensation in your shoulder.

Treating Rotator Cuff Injuries
Because even severe tears may not result in a complete inability to move your arm, it is often best to visit a doctor as soon as possible if you think you have experienced a rotator cuff injury. It is especially important to visit a doctor if your pain is severe, you are unable to move your arm, your shoulder looks deformed, or the skin beneath the injury is discolored.  

Whether you choose to visit a doctor or you decide to try to treat your shoulder injury on your own, one of the most important first steps is to rest your injured shoulder. This means you should stop rock climbing right away. You should not place your arm in a sling. Doing so may cause the joint to stiffen. Instead, avoid repetitive activities, activities that cause discomfort, and lifting heavy objects. To help with the pain, you may want to take anti-inflammatory medications. In the beginning, ice the injured shoulder. After a few days, you may want to start trying to move the injured area with the help of a moist heat.

If the injured area does not start to feel better after a few days of treatment on your own, have your injured shoulder assessed by a doctor. Your doctor may provide you with an individualized treatment plan, which may include specific exercises as well as physical therapy. Unfortunately, surgery may be required if the tear is severe or if your body is not responding well to other treatment options.

The healing time and process is different for everyone. Whereas some people can heal from a rotator cuff injury in a matter of weeks, others take several months to recover. It is important to follow your doctor’s advice when it comes to when you can return to climbing. Returning too soon may result in a longer recovery time.

Of course, these are just a few of the injuries you may encounter while rock climbing.