Climbing injuries: How to prevent and treat them

Woman's shoulder

Just like any other sport, climbing requires some level of self care. So you’d like to work out as much as possible without burning out the body. Climbing is an awesome sport that involves a total workout of the body. The majority of climbing injuries result from overuse of the body parts.

Climbers’ body parts that are most often injured are fingers, knees, elbows, and shoulders. Here we take a look at some of the climbing injuries; How they happen, how to prevent them and how to treat them.

How to prevent the common climbing injuries

    • Stretch out your fingers, shoulders, hips and feet before your workout
    • Do a warming-up and cooling-down before and after your workouts
    • Start your workout with slow and gentle climbs.
    • Train and develop all your muscles for climbing. Ensure the muscles remain in proper balance.
    • Use tape to support your tendons
    • Vary your climbing routine with different types of routes and challenges
    • Avoid extreme climbing moves like dynos or leaping from a lower hold to higher one
    • Take rest days and use them to recover
    • Stop your workout immediately whenever you feel pain
Putting on kinetic sports tape
Putting on kinetic sports tape


Climbing finger injuries

There are three common climbing injuries that often occur on the fingers. They are: A2 pulley strain or rupture, collateral ligament strain and flexor tendon tear.

Woman hanging from climbing wall

A2 Pulley strain

This is the most common finger injury to mountain climbers. The A2 pulley is band of fibers that hold the tendons to the bone. It is located in between the base of the finger and the middle knuckle. The injury often happens when an unexpected force is put on the hand, for example, slipping a foot when crimping. When climbers accidentally place too much force on the hand, the finger produces a pop sound and a sharp pain, which is followed by swelling and bruises. The pain is usually felt at the base of the finger.

A2 pulley injury is the least severe of the three finger injuries and it doesn’t significantly affect the strength of climbers. It is advisable to always tape the injured finger for support after it has been ruptured. Also, surgery on the finger is not recommended even if it is a total rupture.

Flexor tendon tears

The flexor tendons connect muscles to bones which enable you to flex your fingers and bend your hands. They run from inside the elbow, through the forearm and into the finger, passing beneath the pulleys. When there’s a tear in the tendons, you’ll likely feel most pain in the palm and wrist. You’ll be unable to bend one or more joints in the finger. Also, you might feel numbness and or tenderness in the finger. Surgical treatment is required for serious flexor tendon tears, especially if it is a complete rupture.

Collateral ligament strains

The third type of climbing injury suffered on fingers occurs in the collateral ligaments that surround each finger joint. This often happens with sideways loading such as when you are side-pulling or holding on with one hand and throwing the other hand out to hold with it. The pain will be felt at the middle joint of the index finger (the middle finger). Collateral ligament strain is one of the climbing injuries that might require surgery in severe cases.

Treatments of the common finger injuries

With all these three finger injuries you should stop climbing immediately. The earlier you rest the injury the lesser the damage you will do to the affected finger. Afterwards, assess your hand for few days to determine the severity of the injury. If the joint appears stable and there are no bruises, you can treat your injury at home.

Place the injured finger in an ice bath for 10 minutes three to five times a day. In addition to this, engage in active range-of-motion exercises by gently flexing and stretching the injured finger. The first three days is important with icing and you must ensure you continue the ice bath until there’s no pain with movement. You may also take an anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID).

Hand holding block of ice
Ice can relieve pain in your fingers

If the affected finger has bruises and the joint is unstable (i.e it is moving more than normal), it is advisable you see a doctor. And if there are no bruises and there’s no sign of improvement after resting and icing for almost a week, make an appointment. The doctor might need to use an MRI or diagnostic ultrasound to assess the extent of the damage.

After treatment, whether you treat your fingers with or without the help of a doctor, to avoid re-injuring your fingers slowly ease back into climbing. Start with easier routes and tape the injured fingers to provide stability. Common climbing injuries on the fingers take between 4 to 6 weeks to heal. The recovery time depends on the severity of the injury.

Climbing shoulder injury –Shoulder impingement/ rotator cuff tendinopathy

The climbing injury of the shoulder is known as shoulder impingement. It is usually used to describe the pain in the shoulder which suggests that something is being impinged upon by a ligament or a bone. The rotator cuff tendon is typically impinged upon.

The rotator cuff comprises of four muscles, these are; supraspinatus, infraspinatus, teres minor and subscapularis (SITS). The muscles essentially act as a suction cup that keeps the bone of the shoulder joint in place. They are very important because they provide stability for the shoulder. If these muscles are not strong enough, it may leads to shoulder problems.

There are many factors that are relevant in rock climbing that can lead to rotator cuff problems. These factors are: weak rotator cuff muscles, weak scapular muscles, shoulder musculature and poor posture/ tight chest. Weak rotator cuff muscles and weak scapular muscles can alter the positioning of the shoulder structure. This can cause an inconvenient environment in the shoulder joint.

Treating climbing shoulder injuries

Once you have experienced a rotator cuff injury the first important step is to rest your injured shoulder. Stop rock climbing immediately and avoid repetitive activities that might cause discomfort such as lifting heavy objects. Start icing the shoulder and take anti-inflammatory medication to relieve the pain. After a few days, try moving the injured shoulder with the aid of moist heat.

If the pain is serious, the shoulder looks deformed, the skin around the injury is discolored and you are unable to carry your arm, it is advisable to visit a doctor as soon as possible. Your doctor might place you on an individualized treatment like physical therapy and specific exercises. Surgical treatment may also be required if the tear is serious and your body is not responding to treatment.

Woman's shoulder

Climbing knee injury – Meniscal tear

The meniscus is a structure that can be found in the knee joint and it is seated in between the femur and tibia. There are two menisci in the knee joint. The menisci increase the surface area between the femur and tibia. They help to evenly spread the load over a larger area to reduce the stress on the knee.

Unfortunately, the menisci can tear during rock climbing which might be caused by doing a dropped knee move. Dropping the knee causes rotational or shearing torque at the knee. This can be reduced by rotating the foot so that the foot and knee stay aligned.

Climbing elbow injury – Lateral epicondylalgia (Tennis Elbow)

A tennis elbow happens when a climber when a climber feels pain from the tendons of the forearm. It originates from the outside of the elbow. These tendons connect together to form an extensor tendon at the elbow.

The functions of each individual muscle are slightly different but they are essentially helping to extend the wrist. We naturally extend our wrist whenever we want to make a fist or grab something tightly. We produce more pressure with our extended wrist due to the length-tension ratio principles of tendons. During climbing as we make use of our finger flexor, we simultaneous use our wrist extensors which originate from the elbow.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: