Rock climbing – whether you’re outdoors or on a climbing wall – is growing in popularity and it’s easy to see why. As well as keeping you physically fit, it challenges your endurance, your agility and your mental acuity. But, the rise in numbers of people participating in rock climbing has been accompanied by a sharp increase in injuries particularly to the upper limbs. In this blog we’ll look at some of the most common and discuss their diagnosis and treatment.
Types of injuries
It is not just acute trauma (accidents) that accounts for the rise in rock climbing injuries. If you are an enthusiast you are likely to be training regularly and pushing yourself to climb ever more challenging walls. This can lead to chronic overuse injuries.
Here in the clinic we see rock climbers with impact injuries either from falling onto a hard surface or from something falling onto them, as well as non-impact trauma injuries (such as a torn rotator cuff), and chronic overuse injuries. Uniquely in sport, climbing places a huge amount of stress on the person’s fingers, wrists, elbows and shoulders as they are used to support the climber’s body weight. This makes them particularly prone to damage.
A number of factors increase your risk of injury including a rapid increase in difficulty level and/or climbing intensity. If you have poor technique, you place the muscles under great stress – for example, climbing with elbows bent can cause biceps strain while excessive wrist flexion can lead to nerve compression.
Your chances of getting injured also increase if you climb in bad weather or do not have the correct equipment or footwear. Lead climbers are more likely to sustain an injury than those who follow. Being out of condition increases your injury risk and so, too, does your age as muscles naturally weaken as we get older.
5 most common injuries for rock climbers and climbing wall enthusiasts
We treat many different types of climbing injuries, from mild strains through to compound fractures. Five of the most common are:
- Subacromial impingement – this is when the shoulder rotator cuff tendons become pinched under a part of the shoulder blade called the acromion, resulting in pain and inflammation. If you overuse your shoulder muscles by making repeated overhead movements you can create small tears in the soft tissue which becomes inflamed.
- Rotator cuff tears – The rotator cuff is a group of muscles and tendons surrounding the shoulder joint. You can tear the rotator cuff if you fall onto your shoulder or you overuse your shoulder muscles resulting in damage. The symptoms include pain and shoulder weakness.
- Tennis elbow – Also called lateral epicondylitis, the symptoms of tennis elbow are pain and weakness spreading from the outside of the elbow into the forearm and wrist. It is an overuse injury caused by repeatedly contracting the muscles of the forearm.
- Hand injuries – Rock climbers commonly damage the fingers and the flexor pulley system used in gripping and curling the fingers. This is the result of closed-hand crimping and injuries can range from tendinitis to joint and ligament injuries. The fingers may feel weak and you may not be able to grip.
- Wrist pain – There can be many different causes of wrist pain. If the median nerve, which controls sensation in the fingers, becomes compressed you may develop Carpal Tunnel Syndrome. Falling onto an outstretched hand can cause wrist fractures or sprains. Or you may damage the triangular fibrocartilage complex which provides support and stability when you clench your hand or rotate your forearm.
Diagnosis and treatment
As with any kind of sporting injury it is important not to try and push through the pain and continue climbing or you could develop a far more serious or long-lasting problem. If you feel pain or discomfort, stop. Rest the affected area and use ice and anti-inflammatories to reduce the pain and inflammation.
If the pain is severe or the problem persists, see a doctor who will carry out a physical examination. You may need diagnostic imaging (X-ray, CT scan, ultrasound or MRI scan) to determine the type and severity of the injury.
Treatment will depend on the nature of the injury. In the case of tendinitis, for example, you may simply need to rest the limb and do physiotherapy while it heals. If you have a more serious injury such as a fracture due to trauma, you may require surgery or a cast or splint to immobilise the bones while they heal.
If you have sustained an injury while rock climbing, contact us for specialist diagnosis and treatment.
Orthopaedic Consultant & Surgeon | London
Thames Shoulder & Elbow are able to provide advice and support to anyone experiencing symptoms affecting the upper limbs (shoulder, upper arm, elbow, forearm and wrist).
Telephone: 020 376 15987
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