Upper Body Rock Climbing Injuries

Rock climbing made its Olympic debut at the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo, Japan. Three different forms of the sport were featured in Olympic competition: bouldering, lead sport climbing, and speed climbing.

Bouldering entails climbing a wall of up to 15 feet height without a rope. The wall is surrounded by padding for protection. The goal is to reach the top of the route with the least amount of attempts possible.

Lead sport climbing involves a taller wall and thus a harness and rope for protection. The climber clips the rope to bolts in the wall as they climb higher and higher. If the climber falls, they fall to where they last bolted in. The goal is to get up the climbing route as far as possible in just one attempt.

Speed climbing uses a rope and harness on an auto belay system that safely lowers a climber if they fall. The goal is to get to the top of the route as fast as possible.

All of these forms of climbing are open to the general public as well. The first rock climbing gyms opened in the United States in the 1980s, but the popularity of the sport has accelerated with attention to climbing in the Olympics.

Climbing Related Injuries

With a rise in people accessing climbing gyms, there is also a rise in climbing-related injuries. The most common injuries are hand and shoulder injuries. Physical therapy can treat and prevent these injuries.

Common hand injuries include pulley sprains or ruptures and lumbrical strains or tears. Physical therapy can help these areas heal with taping, icing, and hands-on treatment to decrease inflammation. Exercises to promote the full range of motion of the injured area are helpful as well.

After the initial healing stage, building strength becomes the most important. A physical therapist can teach you exercises to strengthen your hand and fingers at different angles and simulate the multiple grips you may use with climbing, such as slopers, underclings, pinches, edges, or jugs. Training the fingers to all flex together while gripping a climbing hold is good injury prevention since having some fingers extended while others are flexed increases the risk of injury to a pulley or lumbrical during loading.

Shoulder injuries happen from the often unnatural angles the body is put in and reaching extremes with a large load placed on it. Once again, taping techniques, icing, and hands-on treatment are valuable. With fatigue, climbers tend to “chicken wing” their arms which lets the elbows rise up and opens the body up to injury. Strengthening the mid and low trapezius muscles and improving shoulder blade control can help avoid this position and reduce injury. Emphasis needs to be put on strengthening in positions that simulate common climbing moves. Mantels, lock offs, rock overs, drop knees, cross overs, rotations out of a plank position, and more require muscle-specific training. A traditional shoulder, bicep, or triceps exercise is not going to produce the best results.

At Hulst Jepsen Physical Therapy, we have physical therapists and personal trainers to help you recover from injury and prevent injury in the future with movement-specific training. Call 616.256.8679 or reach out to any one of our clinics to schedule an appointment. Click Here to Schedule

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Katie Thomas, DPT