Rock climbing is a fun, full-body workout, but it’s important to protect yourself from common orthopedic injuries associated with the sport.
Indoor rock climbing and bouldering have gained in popularity in recent years. As an alternative to traditional workouts, rock climbing strengthens the entire body, increases stamina, promotes good balance, and improves cardiovascular fitness. Although generally considered safe, rock climbing is an intense workout, and serious orthopedic injuries can occur to tendons and muscles if you aren’t careful.
Rock climbing injuries range from acute trauma to chronic overuse injuries. Climbing can be particularly stressful on the tendons in the hands, but other joints are also vulnerable to injury from scaling a wall. Fortunately, you can lessen your chance of injury by taking precautions.
Common Rock Climbing Injuries
The most common rock climbing injuries occur to the hand and shoulder. A 2016 study published in Current Sports Medicine Reports classified three types of injuries associated with rock climbing: impact injuries due to a fall, non-impact injuries such as tendon strains or ruptures, and chronic overuse injuries. After reviewing articles on rock climbing injuries, the study found impact injuries accounted for 10 percent to 50 percent of injuries, while non-impact accounted for between 28 percent to 81 percent, followed by overuse injuries at 33 percent to 44 percent.
Here’s a closer look at orthopedic injuries associated with the sport:
- Finger Injuries. Within our fingers are circular bands called pulleys, which are ligaments that hold the finger flexor tendons to the bones of the hand. Because of the gripping motion used in climbing and the weight put on the ligaments, pulleys are susceptible to ruptures. If torn, you may feel pain and tenderness on the palm side of the finger, or see a bowstringing of the tendon in the hand. Treatment depends on the severity of the injury, but rest, icing, and splinting/taping are recommended. Exercises that strengthen the hand and fingers such as squeezing a ball can also help heal a finger injury.
- Shoulder Injuries. Rock climbing involves raising your arms above your shoulders, which puts stress on the shoulder tendons and the shoulder joint itself. Sometimes, that strain can result in a partial dislocation of the shoulder joint or a tear in the rotator cuff. Symptoms of a rotator cuff injury include pain, weakness, limited range of movement, or a clicking sound in the shoulder. Most shoulder injuries can be treated conservatively, with rest, icing, anti-inflammatory medications, corticosteroid injections, and muscle strengthening exercises.
- Knee Injuries. The knee joint sits between the femur and tibia bones and includes two cushions of cartilage known as the menisci. During rock climbing, a meniscus can rupture, usually due to a drop knee, or an inward rotation of the hip. A meniscus tear typically causes knee pain, swelling, and limited range of motion. Surgery to repair the knee may be required, but the first line of treatment is rest, icing, compression, and elevation.
- Elbow Injuries. Lateral epicondylitis, also known as tennis elbow, is an inflammation of the outer elbow tendons. But the condition isn’t confined to tennis players. When you grip a rock to climb upward, you’re straining your forearm tendons through the wrist extensor tendons, which can produce pain along the outside of the elbow. As with the other injuries, rest, icing, anti-inflammatories, and a brace along the forearm are the preferred treatment methods. However, in some cases, surgery to repair the damaged tendon may be needed.
Preventing Rock Climbing and Bouldering Injuries
To reduce the risk of injury, follow some simple precautions before and after climbing, such as:
- Warm Up Before You Climb. Warming up your muscles prior to a climb increases blood flow and loosens up the muscles. Aerobic exercises and dynamic stretching are often the best ways to prepare for an intensive workout.
- Follow Proper Form. Improper form raises the risk of an orthopedic injury. When climbing, be aware of your form and follow proper techniques. For example, griping with an open hand reduces the stress on the finger pulleys.
- Wear the Right Shoes. Shoes designed specifically for rock climbing prevent slipping and sliding and increase your stability as you climb. In addition, protective taping of the joints can prevent injury.
- Rest Between Sessions. Rock climbing is an intensive exercise program. Therefore, listen to your body and give it time to recuperate between sessions. If pain persists, visit an orthopedic specialist for diagnosis and treatment.
Take Care of Your Bones and Tendons
The physicians and physical therapists at New York Bone & Joint Specialists have successfully treated thousands of patients using a combination of conservative and surgical methods. We customize a therapy plan for each patient to ensure they are pain-free in the shortest time possible. Contact us today for a consultation.