Rock climbing is a demanding sport.
Rock climbing is a popular competitive and recreational sport. As more people discover rock climbing daily, the number of rock climbing injuries will continue to increase.
The Physical Demands
Rock climbing is a great workout 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. The climber must be prepared physically and mentally to handle the frequent challenges as they position their body perfectly for the next move. This makes rock climbing a great cross training workout in addition to lifting weights, yoga and running. It is not uncommon for people to climb 5 or more times in a week.
Injury prevention should be priority for every rock climber. The main concern in rock climbing is the inherent risk for falls and fall related injuries. However, the purpose of this article is to discuss the common overuse injuries experienced by rock climbers. It is important to bring injury awareness to beginners and experienced rock climbers so they can avoid injury and continue to enjoy their passion for rock climbing for many years to come.
Most common rock climbing injuries occur due to overuse and overtraining. Overuse injuries are defined as tissue damage resulting from repetitive strain and micro-traumas that accumulate over time. Overuse injuries are also known as Cumulative Trauma Disorders (CTD). Common rock climbing overuse injuries include:
- Tendinitis - inflammation of tendons
- Inflammation of finger joints
- Pain at the outside of elbow - Tennis elbow
- Pain at the inside of elbow - Climber's elbow
- Labral tear of the shoulder
- Rotator cuff tear
- Ruptured finger pulley
- Shoulder Impingement
- Sprains and strains
- Stress fractures
Overuse injuries and cumulative trauma disorders occur when a climber does not have sufficient recovery of their bones, joints, muscles, tendons and ligaments. Overuse injury syndrome is a combination of chronic irritation, inflammation and accumulation of micro-tears that do not completely heal. Common symptoms include joint pain, muscle pain, pinched nerves, tingling sensations, unstable joints and stiff tendons. 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 the sooner you recognize the signs, the shorter your recovery will be.
Signs of Overuse Injuries from Rock Climbing
- Pain starts as a mild, dull ache following activity.
- Joint and muscle stiffness becomes frequent and goes away with activity.
- Pain and stiffness becomes more severe and more frequent.
- Loss of strength
- Pain does not go away after resting for more than 1 week.
Think You Have An Overuse Injury?
- Stop climbing to allow your body to heal and recover
- Stretch and massage muscles around the painful area.
- Ice - Heat - Ice - Alternate ice and heat to control inflammation and facilitate blood circulation of the painful area.
- Modify your climbing technique
- Strength exercises to build strength and stabilty around painful area.
If the pain does not improve or becomes worse, see your doctor for a proper diagnosis and treatment. Continuing to climb with an injury can cause further damage and delay your healing time.
The goal of medical treatment is to speed up the healing process and restore normal function. For common climbing overuse injuries, treatments include:
- Bone and joint manipulation to relieve pain and restore mobility
- Muscle, tendon, ligament treatment to promote soft tissue healing (Graston Technique)
- Cold Laser Therapy to decrease inflammation and promote cellular healing
- Corrective exercises to improve strength, stability, and flexibility
- Kinesiology taping to decrease inflammation and support muscle activity.
When necessary, more invasive treatments will be needed to manage symptoms and repair damaged tissues. These include:
- Anti-inflammatory pain medications (prescription)
- Medical injections (cortisone, lidocaine)
- Surgery to repair damaged tissues
- 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.
General Recovery Time
- Muscle tear in forearm - 2 to 4 weeks.
- Fractures - 2 months
- Pulley injuries and tendon injuries - 2 to 4 months
- Complete pulley tear 3 to 6 months
- Ligament injuries - 2 to 4 months
- Fractures involving the joint - 3 to 4 months
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 or following an intense climb. Muscles, tendons, ligaments and bones need time to heal and adapt to the training stress.
- Climbing should be stopped before reaching total exhaustion. When the muscles are exhausted, the ligaments and joint capsules are loaded with more stress and 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 avoided as they put excessive stress on the cartilage and joint capsules. Examples: (pull-ups from a "deadhang")
- Do not limit your training to only the flexor muscles. Extensor strength is necessary for muscle balance to avoid injury to the stabilizing muscles.
- Training for endurance is just as important as training for maximum power.
- Flexibility and coordination training should be implemented frequently
- Training with a campus board or dynamic movements should be done rarely with long rest periods in between (no more thanonce a week). Do not perform them at the end of your workout because the movements require good coordination and strength. Exhaustion of your muscles will cause loss of coordination and increase risk for injuries to joints, ligaments and tendons. Only athletes who have peaked in their training should be performing these exercises.
General guideline for tissue response to training
- Muscles - 3 weeks of training
- Heart muscle - 4 weeks of training
- Bone - 1 year
- Tendon - 1-2 years
- Ligament - >2 years
- Cartilage - 3-5 years