McKay-Dee Hospital physical therapist and orthopedic specialist, Matt Conn, DPT, knows the world of rock climbing well. He has rock climbed all over Utah for more than a decade. He has also treated a fair number of athletes with climbing injuries, researched rock climbing extensively, and recovered from a few injuries himself.
Rock climbing has grown in popularity in recent years. Indoor climbing gyms have made the sport accessible to more people. Rock climbing will make its first appearance in the Olympics in 2020. The sport is both physically and mentally challenging, and builds muscle, endurance, and concentration. However, too much of a good thing can result in injuries.
In Matt’s own words regarding rock climbing
What injuries do you see most often?
Rock climbers are passionate about the sport and often overdo it. I see overuse injuries most often involving the fingers, elbow, and shoulder. I have also seen ankle and knee injuries from falls. Repetitive pulling is demanding to the body and one injury can contribute to others.
What can you tell me about those injuries?
- A pulley injury is the most common finger injury. Pulley injuries (or pulley tears) may happen from the pressure of a hold where your fingers crimp down hard. This can cause spraining and tearing of the ligaments. You’ll feel pain to the base of the finger, you may hear a popping sound, and there may be swelling and a reduced range of motion.
- Overuse tendinopathy (or tendon injury) in the elbow is common. This is usually from repetitive gripping. The pain may be on the inside or outside of the elbow. Climbers might feel sharp, sheering pain in their elbow that is associated with different types of tendonitis. This could be tennis elbow (lateral epicondylitis) or golfers elbow (medial epicondylitis).
- Impingement and labral injuries are typical shoulder injuries. These can come from crossover moves when you’re fatigued and put too much pressure on the joint.
How long does it take to recover?
- A pulley injury could take 6 to 8 weeks with rest and a gradual return to climbing. If it’s severe enough, you might need 6 months.
- A tendonitis injury can take 3 to 6 months, but involves a more active recovery with stretching and strength-building.
- Shoulder injuries are less straightforward and may more complicated to treat. In therapy, I usually give exercises to strengthen the muscles that support the shoulder joint.
One good thing to know — the vast majority of overuse climbing injuries do not require surgery.
Do you recommend cross training?
Yes, as it’s important to rest your arms and pulling muscles. So, I suggest workouts like hiking, jogging, biking, yoga, and even light climbing for more advanced climbers. Strength training exercises can help prevent problems like tennis elbow. Meeting with a physical therapy can help you with specifies.
What advice would you give a new climber?
Take rest days and listen to your body. The most common rookie mistake is people will climb too much in the beginning and get an overuse injury. The tendons aren’t strong enough in the beginning. If you’re a beginner and you’re having pain that lasts after climbing and is worsened when climbing, it’s a good indication to seek medical help.