Blessed with some of the most challenging and popular rock climbing routes in Europe on its doorstep, as well as some fantastic indoor climbing centres, Sheffield is a great location for amateur and professional climbers. Unique in its physical challenge, though, climbing comes with a particular set of common injuries we often see within the physio clinic. As such, we’ve put together the following article to help all of those Sheffield climbers out there to stay free from injury.
Common Injuries Associated With Climbing
Shoulder and finger injuries are some of the most common types of climbing injuries we encounter in the clinic. As such, we’ve focussed primarily on these for the purposes of this article.
Rotator Cuff Tears
Rotator cuff injuries are probably one of the most common issues seen in climbers. This is because, as a climber, your arms are extended above your shoulders for most of the climb and, as a result of this, the muscles in your shoulders (mainly your rotator cuff) need to have good strength and good muscular endurance. If your muscles haven’t got the strength and endurance needed for climbing then you are at a greater risk of injury and potential risk for shoulder subluxation or dislocation. If your shoulder subluxes or even dislocates then it is likely that you may damage your rotator cuff muscle.
Rotator cuff weakness is often seen due to people’s work being more sedentary and people focussing on strengthening the other key muscles in the shoulder, often leaving out the rotator cuff. Your rotator cuff muscles are the most important group of muscles, so make sure you include strengthening them in your programme.
Subluxation of the Shoulder
Again, subluxation of the shoulder (where the ball comes partially out of the socket) is very common in climbers. Because the shoulder is the most mobile joint in the body it is more susceptible to dislocation. Often when climbing you can slip, clinging on with your arm. Doing this puts a lot of force through the shoulder joint and if you haven’t got the strength and stability around the shoulder to take that load, then you are at greater risk of subluxing or dislocating your shoulder.
Finger Pulley Tears
Finger pulley tears often result from overloading the finger tendon when climbing, due the massive amount of weight that you put through your fingers when climbing. These types of injuries often happen when you are gripping onto a small hold or a pocket. You can sometimes hear or feel a pop, with pain and swelling more than likely following. Finger pulley injuries can take a while to heel and it is important that you return to climbing when they have healed. When you return, try to stick to big holds and other holds that avoid direct pressure on the injured finger(s).
Common areas for climbers to get a tendinopathy include the shoulder (rotator cuff), knee (patella) and elbow (wrist extensors). Tendinopathies often occur due to repetitive movements which overload the tendons. In climbing there is a lot of repetitive overhead reaching, gripping and pulling, so it is no surprise that it is common to overload the tendons.
Recommended Exercises For Climbers
Rotator Cuff Tears / Subluxation
In any case, rest is the first thing to consider after a rotator cuff injury; how long you are required to rest depends on the severity of the tear.
- Maintain your range of movement to prevent your shoulder from stiffening up. This can be done passively (muscles aren’t doing the movement), active assisted (some muscle involvement), or actively (lifting your arm up on its own). In the early stages it may be difficult to lift your arm on its own due to pain so I would recommend starting with one of the other forms of movement, avoiding a 3/10 pain.
- The next thing to look at would be gently strengthen up your rotator cuff muscle. A good place to start is isometric exercises (a static hold of the muscle resisting against something), from there you can then start to add some resistance into the exercise, ie with a weight or a resistance band.
- If a subluxation has occurred it is also important to look at the shoulder as a whole, as a lot of people tend to be quite weak posteriorly, for example in their trapezius muscles. As previously mentioned, a subluxation/dislocation of the shoulder can damage the muscles, ligaments and other structures around the shoulder, therefore the shoulder as a whole will need strengthening.
Finger Pulley Tears
The best way to prevent finger pulley tears is to build up your finger strength slowly. Although your forearms might be strong enough to crimp onto small holds, your fingers might not have the strength required. Tendons take more time to build strength.
Hang boarding is a good way to start building finger strength, but it is important to start slowly and build up gradually. If you’re a beginner, I would advise you start by focusing on climbing more at a moderate grade and leave the hang board until you are a more advanced climber. Finger pulley tears can result in major training setbacks, so do take you time with training and recovery.
It is important to not keep overloading a tendon, give yourself time to recover. With tendinopathies it is important to do ‘graded loading’.
This means that you may want to start with some isometric strengthening exercises (muscle length does not change during contraction). From there, you can gradually start loading the tendon/muscle. How much you load a tendon will depend largely on how irritable the tendon is; you do not want to flare the tendon up too much so it is important to find the right balance.