Climbing Injuries: Diagnosis, Treatment and Prevention
Rock climbing intensively can lead to muscle strain, tendon and ligament injury. It can also cause soft tissue damage and potentially lead to bone conditions such as arthritis.
Climbing is one of the fastest-growing sports in the UK. It is estimated that more than 1 million people take part in rock climbing in one form or another.
All types of climbing can lead to musculoskeletal injuries – from damaged knee ligaments due to deep knee bends to finger injuries as you pull your body weight up a wall; from shoulder pain caused by over-stressing or over-rotating your shoulders to foot injuries from tight climbing shoes.
Most climbers – from novices to experts – are aware that warming up and stretching properly is key to avoiding injury. But not everyone puts as much time and effort into it as they should!
Climbing injuries range from minor niggles to traumatic injuries, but all should be taken seriously. If you have ongoing aches, pain and restricted movement even after a short period of rest and anti-inflammatories, it’s important to get a proper diagnosis from a sports medicine professional.
At Capital Orthopaedics, our experienced orthopaedic consultants work with top sports medicine professionals to treat professional athletes and recreational sportspeople alike. Our aim – to get you back to strength and fitness quickly, with resilience against future injuries.
For more information about the treatment of your climbing injuries, contact us here.
What Causes Climbing Injuries?
Climbing injuries are usually caused by overtraining (repetitive movements) or by a traumatic injury (such as torn ligament or a fracture) in an explosive action or an impact.
Muscle, tendon, ligament and soft tissue damage are common in all aspects of rock climbing, whether you’re bouldering, route climbing or training on a fingerboard.
Bouldering is particularly high risk for musculoskeletal injuries, with its powerful, repetitive and often dynamic moves adding extra stress on your joints and muscles, and the risks of falls onto a mat or hard ground.
Fractures and sprains are common impact injuries in both bouldering and roped climbing.
Flexibility is a major factor in climbing – and it is very easy to over-strain or over-stretch your muscles and connective tissue, particularly when your body is under tension as you stretch or spring for a move.
Neck, shoulder and upper back injuries are common in climbers, as well as the typical finger and elbow injuries. Muscle imbalance has a lot to answer for in climbing – with over-developed upper back muscles or forearm muscles, for example, leading to overstressed tendons in those areas.
What are the Most Common Climbing Injuries?
Rock climbing intensively can lead to muscle strain, tendon and ligament injury. It can also cause soft tissue damage and potentially lead to bone conditions such as arthritis. For this reason, it’s always important to correctly diagnose and treat pain, stiffness or reduced range of motion before it becomes a serious problem.
Frequent training can result in micro-tears in the tendon that attaches your forearm muscle to the bony lump on the outside of your elbow. This leads to pain around the outside of the joint and weakness in the forearm.
Like tennis elbow, the inflammation of the tendons connecting to the bony lump on the inside of your elbow. A frequent and strenuous climbing schedule may put your tendons under stress before they are fully recuperated. The micro-tears accumulate and grow over weeks or months, and eventually turn into tendinosis.
Biceps or triceps tendonitis at the elbow
The tendons that attach your upper arm muscles to the elbow can get strained during intensive training, leading to pain in the crease of the elbow joint (biceps tendon) or at the outside/back of the joint (triceps tendon).
Your shoulder joint is extremely mobile – sometimes too mobile. The tendons and ligaments that support your shoulder become stretched in a sudden movement, or slowly over time. This leads to laxity and weakness in the muscles around the shoulder – and the chance of the humerus head (rounded top of your upper arm bone) slipping out of its socket (glenoid). A subluxation can be extremely painful, and result in ongoing structural problems, including cartilage tears (SLAP tears), impingement, rotator cuff tears and arthritis.
Rotator Cuff Tears
Your shoulder joint is supported by a tube of muscles and tendons called the rotator cuff. Tiny tears can form in the tendons through overuse – the repetitive overhead or rotational actions in climbing are often to blame. The rotator cuff tendons can also suffer a partial or complete rupture in a traumatic injury – for example in a dynamic twisting movement or jumping to catch hold. Rotator cuff tears result in pain and weakness in your shoulder and reduced range of motion.
Finger pulley injuries
The tendons that run along the sides and inside your fingers are put under massive strain during climbing. Damaged finger tendons lead to pain around the joints of your fingers and can prevent you from climbing. Many climbers simply tape up the painful fingers and carry on – which can lead to long-term tendonitis in the fingers.
While upper body injuries are common in climbing, your knees also take a lot of force. Whether you’re frequently jumping or falling off in bouldering, or climbing technical routes with lots of twists and high steps, you are at risk of tearing your meniscus. This rubbery pad of cartilage sits in the middle of your knee joint, and can get torn with a strong twisting movement or in an impact. A torn meniscus can be very painful, cause a feeling of instability along with rapid muscle wasting, swelling and stiffness.
Knee ligament tear
The strong, fibrous ligaments that connect your thigh bone (femur) to your shin bones (tibia and fibula) can be torn as a result of a deep knee bend, a sudden twisting action or an awkward fall. Symptoms include instability, weakness, pain and swelling.
This painful condition feels as though you are stepping on a ballbearing under the ball of your foot. Classically associated with wearing high heels, it is also a common occurrence with tight shoes. The nerve that runs under the ball of your foot becomes inflamed and thickened, then becomes pinched in between other structures in your forefoot. It is normally treated by wearing wider shoes – not really an option for climbers, so you need to talk to a specialist to find the best treatment solution.
How Can Climbing Injuries Be Treated?
Most chronic climbing injuries can be treated effectively with a combination of rest, anti-inflammatories and physiotherapy.
Physical therapy is vital for the rehabilitation of ongoing injuries – so you really need to get a correct diagnosis, followed by a climbing-specific exercise and massage programme.
Traumatic injuries such as tendon or ligament ruptures and bone fractures may require more intervention, and sometimes surgery is the only option.
Capital Orthopaedics offers fast-track consultations and state of the art diagnostics at three central London locations. We offer targeted physiotherapy programmes, as well as injection therapy to help reduce pain and inflammation and stimulate healing.
If you need surgery, our top orthopaedic surgeons are experts at treating sports injuries with minimally invasive surgery – ensuring quicker recovery times and long term resilience against future injury.
If you have a climbing injury, or any pain that prevents you from climbing to your greatest potential, contact us here to make an appointment.