Like athletes in any sport, most rock climbers have experienced some sort of injury. Rock climbing can be a dangerous sport but safety gear and safe practices make injuries minimal and they are usually preventable.
However, there are some injuries that are caused by unbalanced muscles or overuse that have become the most common causes of injuries. This information comes from extensive research and experience but I am not a doctor so go get medical help if you need it. Here are the five most common injuries and what you can do to prevent them.
Finger Pulley Flexors
Finger injuries are usually tendon-related and caused by overuse. According to this study about what type of climbers get injured most frequently, fingers are the most commonly injured. The biggest contributor to finger injuries is crimp climbing and overusing the finger flexors. Unfortunately, if you continue climbing after feeling some pain in the hand, you are more likely to damage the pulley flexors. According to climb.com, symptoms for the most common pulley injury for climbers include pain at the base of the finger that is noticeable when trying to straighten or bend the finger. Depending on the exact injury, you may not be able to use your finger for a few weeks so it is important to prevent finger injuries as much as possible.
3 Ways To Prevent Finger Injuries
- Warm up your hands properly. By warming up, you increase the pliability of your finger flexors and they are able to handle more force. Many climbers warm up their fingers by jump roping, flicking each finger, shaking their hands out ect.
- Dynamic stretching before climbing and static stretching after each climbing session. Some climbers make the mistake of static stretching prior to their climbing session, which can lead to injury, so make sure you are only statically stretching after your climbing session. One of the most common static stretches is the prayer stretch where you place both palms together and move your elbows up so it stretches your wrists all the way into your fingers.
- Use proper technique. When you are using crimp holds or small handholds that force you to rely and put a lot of weight in your fingers, make sure that you are placing your feet in a position that allows for the majority of your weight to be in your feet. In addition, when you are using a crimp handhold, make sure that you are using an open crimp grip to decrease the chance of getting injured.
If you want to learn more about the three main types of crimp grips and how to train for them, check out this post (What Is A Crimp In Rock Climbing and How To Train For Them).
Elbow injuries such as climbers elbow (also known as tennis elbow) are commonly caused by overuse from repetitive gripping. Some of the first signs of tennis elbow is minor pain near your elbow. If you feel any pain in your elbow, stop climbing and rest till you can grip without pain. Climbers elbow can take up to 6 months to recover so it is incredibly important to prevent when possible.
3 Ways To Prevent Elbow Injuries
- Avoid full lock-offs while climbing. Full lock-offs are when you bend your elbow completely. The best technique while climbing is to keep your arms straight as much as possible and push your body up with your legs.
- Strength training exercises to stretch and strengthen your wrist and forearm muscles can prevent tennis elbow. Here are 12 training exercises that focus on your grip and help build forearm muscles.
- Warmup your elbow, forearm and wrists thoroughly before climbing. Just like warming up your fingers, warming up will increase the pliability of your muscle and tendon flexors so they can handle more force. You can warm up by jumping rope, mountain climbers, arm circles, etc.
Shoulder Rotator Cuff
Common climbing injuries are in the shoulder because climbing uses a lot of force through your shoulders. The most common shoulder injuries in climbing are in the rotator cuff. This is a common occurrence if you don’t engage your shoulder blades while climbing. What happens is the muscles in the front of your shoulders and in your chest grow bigger/stronger than the muscles on your back. This imbalance causes the front shoulders and chest to pull on your rotator cuff more than the muscles in the back. With continued use, the rotator cuff becomes worn and strained. In addition, to protect your rotator cuff, your chest and shoulders will tighten causing your shoulders to roll forward and create a hunched back, which isn’t pretty. A common symptom prior to injury is a dull pain or ache in the back or side of your shoulder as well as discomfort lifting the arm.
3 Ways to Prevent Shoulder Injuries
- Exercise your rotator cuff. There are many exercises that do this, one that is easy to do and accessible with a resistance band is the clock exercise. This is a common exercise that you can do standing up or while in a crawling position on the ground. Imagine a clock with your hands in the middle of the clock, shoulder-width apart. With one hand steady, move the other hand to each of the hours of the clock. Repeat 3 times on each shoulder.
- Strengthen your back shoulder muscles. Since the rotator cuff strain is frequently caused by an imbalance in the muscles around the rotator cuff, strengthening the back shoulder muscles so that they can be balanced. One exercise to help with this is Y’s. You can do this exercise on a ball or elevated bench at a 45-degree angle with your chest facing the bench. Using light hand weights in each hand, straighten your arms and left them into a ‘Y’ shape. Do 2-3 reps of 15 after each climbing session.
- Engage your shoulder blades while you climb. Though this may seem like what I should put as the first tip, this tip is more useful if you are still mostly balanced with your shoulders. The likelihood of you reading this article at the beginning of your climbing adventures while your shoulders are perfectly balanced is unlikely. However, now that you have done the exercises in tips 1 and 2 and have created balanced shoulders, this is a great way to keep climbing and not repeating the issues from before. To engage your shoulders, push your chest out and keep your shoulder blades together as much as possible while you climb.
Though wrist sprains happen in climbing if you fall and accidentally catch yourself on your hands, the most common injury in your wrist is a sprain. By the time you have gotten to this section, you may notice a pattern with climbers. Gripping and pulling yourself up over and over again can be straining on your body. Wrists, for example, compress and rotate in different angles making them more susceptible to injury if the muscles surrounding the wrists aren’t properly built or balanced. Common climbing wrist injuries include strained tendons and the rotator muscles in wrists. Early symptoms are mild pain when bending your wrists or when applying weight to your wrists.
3 Ways To Prevent Wrist Injury
- Warm-up your wrists prior to climbing. Warming up increases the pliability of your wrist flexors and they are able to handle more force. The better you are warmed up before putting a lot of force and weight on them, the more pull and force they can handle.
- Dynamically stretch your wrists before climbing and statically stretch your wrists after your climbing session. This will make it so that your muscles are able to compress and expand more without injury. You can dynamically stretch your wrists by shaking out your hands and statically stretch them by pressing your hands together in a prayer pose pointing up with your palms together and the downward prayer pose with the back of your palms together and fingers pointing down.
- Strengthen your wrists. There are many exercises that strengthen your wrists. One of my favorite exercises is also great for your fingers and forearm, wrist curls. Place a lightweight dumbbell in your hands with your palms facing up and curl your wrists up. Repeat this with your palms facing down. Do 2-3 reps of 15 with your palms facing each way every day.
Unlike most of the other injuries that are outlined that are caused by overuse and repetitive movements, this is an injury caused by falling or landing on your feet wrong and rolling your ankle in or out severely. This injury is more common in bouldering than climbing with a rope because the odds of hitting the ground is significantly higher than when you have a rope to catch you. Some climbers suggest that spraining your ankle is unavoidable, but there are some preventable things you can do to decrease that chance.
3 Ways To Prevent Ankle Sprains
- The number one way to prevent ankle sprains is by climbing down instead of jumping off the rock. This is for both indoor and outdoor bouldering as the mats don’t absorb your impact completely.
- Since falling in bouldering is inevitable, try falling with both feet down at the same time. This can be difficult at certain angles, but you can have a spotter assist you if needed. Landing on both your feet at once allows the weight to be distributed throughout both ankles instead of all of your weight on one ankle.
- When you land on your feet, keep your knees bent and if it is a high fall, let your weight roll onto your shoulders so that the impact on your ankles is minimized. As if controlling a roll on your fall isn’t hard enough, here is one more thing – don’t use your hands to catch yourself. That will increase the likelihood of spraining your wrist.
Getting injured in climbing is almost inevitable, but there are things you can to prevent injury. For example, most injuries can be prevented by properly warming up, stretching dynamically before climbing and statically climbing after. Since many injuries are due to strength and muscle imbalance, make sure that you are strengthening the muscles that you don’t use as frequently while climbing such as your back shoulders.
Proper muscle balance will help keep your rotator cuff safe, prevent elbow tendon strains and help prevent injury in your wrists. For injuries that aren’t caused by overuse or repeatable movements unavoidable in climbing such as sprained ankles, try climbing down and be aware of your body as you fall.
I hope that this list has been helpful and that you are able to prevent injury. Be sure to share it with any of your climbing friends that may benefit from knowing the most common injuries in climbing and how to prevent them. Climb safe!