If you're looking to get started rock climbing, you may think your biggest concern would be falling off the rock face. After all, the sport does entail scaling vertical walls as high as multi-story buildings. But if you talk with any advanced climber, you'll learn that if you have the right climbing gear and know how to climb safely, falls shouldn't be too concerning.
Instead, you'll need to watch out for more common climbing injuries, which can hit you in a flash or creep up on you over long periods of climbing. Either way, it's important to know how to identify these injuries, prevent them if you can, and treat them properly if they do occur.
You may not hear Sylvester Stallone complaining about a hurt finger in Cliffhanger, but, the truth is, the most common injuries among rock climbers are those that affect the ligaments and tendons that control your fingers.
It may be surprising to hear that there are no muscles in the fingers. Rather, they are operated by a system of fibers, making them more vulnerable to strain. Sometimes, if placed under enough exertion, one of these fibers—known as a pulley—can be affected.
One of the most common injuries is an annular pulley tear, which occurs when a finger tendon (pulley) unexpectedly and swiftly bears the weight of your whole body. In one situation, you may lose your grip with one hand, or your climbing shoes may slip, suddenly putting the full weight of your body on your fingers. Most of the time, this injury occurs while crimping (when a hold is only big enough to fit the tip of your finger.)
If the pulley tears or ruptures, climbers often hear and feel an actual pop as soon as the injury occurs, most often in the middle or ring finger. This could trigger pain immediately, and will most likely lead to swelling shortly after. By the time you get home, you may notice some "bowstringing," which resembles a lump in the flesh below your first knuckle.
Although this is the most common injury, fortunately, it is also one of the least severe. To treat a pulley tear, you should stop climbing altogether, sometimes for as long as nine months, or until it doesn't scare you to grab a crimp. While it's always best to see a doctor if you suspect a serious injury, many climbers have recovered from pulley tears by resting, icing the finger, and massaging/stretching the tissue to prevent scarring.
Once you start climbing again, you may want to try taping the affected finger to provide the injured pulley with extra support during its final phase of healing.
More serious finger injuries
If you injure the tendons that snake from the elbow down into the fingers, it could lead to an inability to bend several of the joints in your fingers, or even cause tenderness and numbness. Damage to the ligaments that cover your finger joints can also be very painful, and both of these will likely require help from a doctor.
Preventing acute injuries
The best way to prevent these injuries from occurring is to climb smart. Know how to move your body, how to allocate weight, and the proper way to utilize different holds.
While risk is always an inherent part of climbing, you can greatly reduce the chances by taking a climbing lesson to learn the basics from the start. And remember to always wear a helmet.
While many injuries occur in the blink of an eye, there are several climbing-related ailments that can develop slowly, causing severe damage over time. These injuries occur when tissues are overused and eventually damaged. Tendonitis, which occurs when the tendons become inflamed and painful, is one of the most common chronic injuries, as is joint swelling. These conditions most often arise in elbows and shoulders.
Overuse injuries are easier to prevent than acute injuries, as long as you take good care of your body. These injuries occur when you don't give your body enough time to recover after a hard workout, so this is especially important to keep in mind when you're first starting out. Don't overexert yourself, and if you feel joint or muscle pain, nerve tingling, or stiff tendons, it may be a sign to slow down. Always be sure to warm up and stretch properly each time you climb to ensure your muscles are primed for activity.
Unfortunately, chronic injuries are silent assassins. If you don't treat the injuries right away, you run the risk of suffering permanent and irreversible damage.
All top-rope climbing injuries can also occur in bouldering, despite the shorter routes. However, because you can at times be as high as 12 feet without a rope, there is also the added danger of more serious acute injuries. Even with the right rock climbing equipment, such as a crash pad, it's easy to strain or sprain your ankle if you don't properly fall onto the mat. Make sure you learn how to fall, and that you have a trustworthy spotter with you.
Being aware of the most common climbing injuries will help to ensure that your experience is a safe one, so climbing can be an enjoyable activity for years to come.
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