Rock climbing is a demanding sport, physically and mentally. Rock climbing traditionally began as an activity for people seeking adventure. In recent years, rock climbing has also become a popular competitive and recreational sport. As the popularity of this sport continues to increase and more people discover rock climbing daily, the number of rock climbing injuries will continue to increase.
The Physical Demands
Rock climbing is a fun, exciting (and addicting) sport for people of all ages and skill levels. Rock climbing requires a good balance of strength, endurance and flexibility especially in the shoulders, arms, hips and back. A deficiency in any of these areas can affect the climber’s ability to climb efficiently and increase the potential risk for injury. Rock climbing also requires the climber to be mentally prepared for the climb and have fully body awareness. This is so that the climber will know precisely where their hands and feet are before making the next move. Overall, the climber must be prepared physically and mentally to handle the frequent challenges as they maintain balance while positioning their body perfectly for the next move.
Injury prevention should be priority for every rock climber. The immediate concern in rock climbing is the inherent risk for falls and fall related injuries. However, most rock climbing injuries develop from repetitive strain and overuse injuries. It is important to bring injury awareness to beginners and experienced rock climbers so they can avoid injury and enjoy their passion for rock climbing for years to come.
Most common rock climbing injuries occur due to overuse and overtraining. Overuse injuries are defined as tissue damage that results from repetitive strain or "micro-traumas" that occur over time. This is why overuse injuries are also known as Cumulative Trauma Disorders (CTD). Common rock climbing overuse injuries include:
Tendonitis - inflammation of tendons
Swelling of finger joints
Pain on the outside of elbow - (tennis elbow)
Pain on the inside of elbow - (golfer's elbow)
Labral tears of the shoulder or hip
Rotator cuff tear
Torn finger pulley or tendon
Sprains and strains
Overuse injuries and cumulative trauma disorders can get worse when a rock climber does not have sufficient time for recovery of their bones, joints and soft tissues (muscles, tendons and ligaments). Overuse injury syndrome is a combination of chronic tissue strain, inflammation and accumulation of "micro tears" that do not completely heal. Common symptoms include joint pain, muscle pain, nerve tingling, joint clicking and stiff tendons especially in the hands, wrists, arms and shoulders. Pain is not always present in the early phases of overuse injuries which make these injuries difficult to identify. Overuse injuries develop over time so being proactive in recovery care can prevent or postpone an injury that prevent you from climbing.
Signs of Overuse Injuries from Rock Climbing
Pain starts as a mild, dull ache following your climbs.
Joint and muscle stiffness develops and goes away with physical activity.
Pain and stiffness becomes more severe and more frequent and doesn't go away with activity.
Significant decrease with strength and performance
Pain is present even after resting for several days.
Think You Have An Overuse Injury?
Stop climbing to allow the body to heal and recover.
Stretch and massage muscles around the affected area.
Ice - Heat - Ice - Alternate ice and heat therapy to control inflammation and facilitate blood circulation.
Modify your climbing technique to avoid adding more strain to the affected area.
Strength exercises to build strength and stabilty around painful area.
If the problem persists or becomes worse, see your doctor (preferably one who works with climbers) for a proper diagnosis and treatment. Continued climbing with an injury can cause further damage and delay your healing time.
Rock Climbing Injury Treatment
The goals for treating a rock climbing injury is to identify the cause for the pain, stop the injury process, promote the healing process and prevent reinjury. Treatment usually include:
Decreasing pain and inflammation
Correct bone and joint alignment to relieve pain and stiff joints.
Muscle, tendon, and ligament therapy to promote blood circulation for accelerated recovery
Strength and flexibiity training to prevent reinjury.
*When necessary, surgery will repair damaged tissues that cannot heal on their own.
Chronic injuries (>3 months) may take longer to resolve
Pain may go away temporarily even though the injury has not fully recovered
Specific activities can help improve recovery time and prevent muscles and joints from becomming stiff and weak.
Tendons and ligaments do not heal as quickly as muscle tissue and needs to be taken into consideration with training.
When To Resume Climbing
Full range of motion is restored without pain
Full strength in the area is restored without pain
Rock Climbing Training Tips
Allow sufficient time to rest in between climbing sessions. Muscles, tendons, ligaments and bones need time to heal and adapt to the training loads.
Climbing should be stopped before reaching total exhaustion. When the muscles are exhausted, the ligaments and joint capsules are at higher risk for injury.
Climbing methods should be varied by using different exercises and different shaped holds. This will prevent one area from being overstressed.
Exercises where a joint is at its furthest extension should be practiced with caution as they put excessive stress on the cartilage and joint capsules. Examples: (pull-ups from a "deadhang")
Do not limit your training to only climbing specific exercises. Cross training is necessary for muscle balance and provide active recovery.
Flexibility and coordination training should be implemented frequently
Training with a campus board or dynamic movements should be done no more than 2 times a week. Do not perform them at the end of your workout because the powerful dynamic movements require good coordination and strength. Performing while exhausted Exhaustion of your muscles will increase injury to ligaments and joints.