If you have been rock climbing for a while, it is very likely that you have experienced some sort of strain or mild injury at some point.
Rock climbing injuries can range from minor to very serious, and knowing how to prevent and treat the specific injuries that come with the sport is key to making it sustainable in the long run to keep healthy, keep fit and keep climbing.
Is Rock Climbing Dangerous?
Its a common question one my ask when they start off considering rock climbing or bouldering. While it is certainly not as safe as swimming or cycling, climbing doesn’t necessarily have to be dangerous. If you follow the proper safety precautions, rules and techniques taught, rock climbing can be perfectly safe. In fact, it has a relatively low injury rate compared to many other popular and extreme sports like snowboarding or dirt biking.
The big difference with outdoor rock climbing, however, is that some of the mistakes that come with the sport can be fatal. Majority of the fatalities occur when sport climbing outdoors. They are most often a result of human error when it comes to proper techniques and safety steps. Some of which includes falls incurred when abseiling/ rappelling or cleaning/ topping out the anchors set up at the top. The possibility of rockfall is also a risk, especially on multi-pitch routes and in areas with poor rock quality. So when we say wear a rock climbing helmet, we mean it!
However other than such major errors that lead to death which is a very very small percentage, majority of the common bouldering and rock climbing injuries done in gyms or outdoors are much less serious and can be prevented and managed.
For starters, finger injuries, tendonitis and minor sprains are the most common ailments that rock climbers and boulderers face, and the majority of them can be treated and healed with time and strengthening.
2 Types of Common Climbing Injuries
The most common climbing injuries can fall into 2 categories, it can either be acute or chronic injuries. Acute injuries are incurred from an unexpected strain/ force/ impact on a part of your body, while chronic injuries develop over time as a result of weakness, overuse, or improper form.
Almost every intermediate and advance rock climber will experience an acute injury at one point or another in their climbing career. The most common acute climbing ailments are finger injuries. Climbers have an injury that is just unique to them called flexor tendon pulleys. These are like rings of ligaments that keep the tendon in contact with the phalanges, or finger bones.
The pulley can be sprained (a small hairline tear) or ruptured (a full tear and separation of the ligament) if a climber puts too much force on fingers that aren’t sufficiently warmed up before they start climbing very technical routes. Over-exerting when your finger lacks the finger strength is also a big mistake. You will often feel and hear an audible soft pop when you rupture a pulley, though this is not necessarily always the case. You might not feel it straight away while you are still tackling the route, but it tends to sit in a few hours later.
Though pulley injuries are perhaps the most common climbing ailment, it is also possible to incur acute injuries in other parts of the body. Climbers experience rotator cuff injuries when performing big bouldering dyno moves that are aggressive on the shoulders. Bad bouldering landings on crash mats or poor sport climbing belay catches can result in ankle sprains and damage to knee ligaments.
Besides acute injuries, perhaps a common injury in climbers are chronic injuries. Though a relatively low-impact sport, rock climbing causes wear and tear on very specific parts of the body, namely the fingers, shoulders, and elbows. The chronic injury that climbers most often develop is tendonitis, which usually is caused by overuse, poor technique, or lack of sufficient strengthening.
Depending on your background and weaker points, chronic injuries that result from climbing can further affect other parts of the body. Your wrists, forearms, and back muscles all experience high-intensity loads when climbing.
Additionally, taking recurrent high-impact falls that target one specific part of the body, such as the knee caps or ankles, can also cause a chronic weakening and injury in those areas with time.
So with all this knowledge, what can we do to prevent climbing injuries or letting it worsen.
How To Prevent Climbing Injuries
For starters, you can minimize your risk by taking these precautions and incorporating certain exercises and stretches into your training routine.
Finger Injuries and Training
Finger tendon injuries are the most common injuries that climbers experience, which should come as little surprise considering the amount of strain and load that we put on our fingers. Thankfully, you can take a number of steps to prevent finger injuries.
First off, properly warming up is the best thing that you can do for your fingers, and we’re not just talking about warming up your hands. You will want to do some sort of dynamic or aerobic warmup (skipping, jumping jacks, stretches) in order to get the blood flowing to your fingers.
After that, start climbing on easy warm up routes that are not too intensive and does not require you to grab small or aggressive holds.
It is also very important to use proper technique when climbing so as to avoid shockloading a finger, which is a common cause of injury. Work on engaging your core and properly using your feet in order to take excess weight off of your fingers. You can also tape your fingers to give them extra reinforcement if you find them to be weakened. Finally, always be sure to always warm down by stretching your fingers, wrists, and forearms after a climbing session.
Another common ailment that climbers deal with is joint pain. Joint pain is a chronic injury that can be caused by overuse or lack of rest. PIP Synovits, for example, is the inflammation and irritation of finger joints. It can be prevented by being sure to get plenty of rest and only attempt simple climbing route grades until you are fully recovered. Moving on to holds that are too small or aggressive can irritate your finger joints if they aren’t ready for them.
You can also buy some finger rollers that can help reduce swelling and also improve blood flow.
Another potential injury that climbers face is elbow pain, or tennis elbow. Rock climbers are often using repetitive gripping and lifting motions, which takes a toll on the tendons in our elbows. One of the best ways that you can prevent this from happening is by scheduling in the proper amount of rest days into your training regimen.
Additionally, work on home exercises that target the specific area, such as reverse wrist curls and forearm pronators, and antagonist exercises, like pushups and bench press, to strengthen your muscles and avoid injury.
Knee injuries most commonly occur in climbing when performing specific movements, like drop knees, heel hooks, and highsteps. They can also be caused by bouldering falls with uncontrolled or uneven landings.
In order to avoid knee injuries when climbing, the best thing that you can do is strengthen the area with exercises that target the specific knee muscles used when climbing. Incorporate this drop knee overhead press exercise into your climbing strength training routine to strengthen your knees and prevent injuries.
Shoulder injuries are another ailment that often plague climbers, especially boulderers. Aggressive movements like dynos and gastons can put extra strain on the shoulders and can potentially even cause as serious as a rotator cuff tear.
The fact that climbers spend so much time with their arms above their head while climbing makes their shoulders particularly susceptible to injuries, and strengthening the shoulders with specific exercises targeting the area, such as military or overhead presses, can help to prevent these injuries.
Though not quite as common as other injuries, head injuries are certainly a possibility whenever you are climbing. Fortunately, they can be avoided with relative ease. Be sure to always wear a safety helmet whenever you are sport or trad climbing, both on multi pitch and single pitch routes, and even when climbing in the gym if you could potentially experience an uncontrolled fall. When bouldering, make sure that you have attentive partners who are spotting you and always double-check that your crashpads are properly placed.
Strength Training To Recover From Injuries
If you do happen to find yourself injured, there is no need to fret. With the proper training and rehabilitation techniques, you will be back on the wall in no time.
Body Weight Exercises
Body weight exercises are the most basic rehabilitation technique when it comes to climbing injury recovery, and they can in fact be incredibly effective. Antagonist movements like pushups are excellent for elbow rehabilitation, while bodyweight squats and lunges can strengthen the quad and glute muscles that are essential to knee injury recovery.
Suspension training can be incredibly useful when it comes to treating shoulder injuries. Exercises like the TRX clock press and T to Y to I movements can help to stabilize and strengthen the shoulder muscles that are so often put under stress when climbing.
Suspension training also helps to strengthen core muscles, which will help you to maintain body tension and form when climbing and reduce the risk of popping a pulley or tearing a rotator cuff.
When properly programmed, weight training can be an appropriate rehabilitation technique for certain injuries, especially elbow injuries. Using very light weights for wrist curls can be an incredibly effective exercise when treating climber’s elbow.
Additionally, once you have progressed sufficiently in your injury rehabilitation and you have been cleared by your doctor or physical therapist, incorporating weight training like overhead presses, bench presses, and weighted squats can be great to target shoulder and knee injuries.
Finger training is key when it comes to recovering from a pulley or finger tendon injury. While you won’t be ready to train mere days after your injury, a properly programmed finger training regimen is key in finger rehabilitation.
Portable no-hang devices, such as portable hangboards that you pull on rather than hang on, are key in finger training when recovering from a finger injury. It is also important to perform equipment-free exercises, such as tendon glides. Once you’re ready to start hangboarding again, you should begin by removing bodyweight with the help of resistance bands.
When recovering from an injury, the most important thing is to avoid doing too much too soon. If you have been off of the wall for a while because of an injury, you will understandably be eager to jump right back into it. However, load management is incredibly important in ensuring that your injury doesn’t persist or get worse.
After coming back from an injury, load management will be key, not only to ensure that you don’t re-injure yourself, but also to avoid the possibility of plateauing. Slowly increasing volume and density will help to prevent you from perpetuating your injury all while slowly improving as a climber and making strength gains.
As you can see, while it need not necessarily be considered a dangerous sport, rock climbing comes with its fair share of pesky injuries. However, if you take the proper precautions to prevent them, you should be able to stay healthy and injury-free. In any case, if you do happen to injure yourself, follow the proper recovery guidelines and you’ll be back on the wall in no time.