People have been climbing rocks for centuries, but with hundreds of gyms now offering climbing walls, sport climbing is no longer limited to the outdoors. In 2006, Climbing Magazine estimated its readership at close to 121,000 people, and an earlier U.S. government study found that 7.4 million Americans had tried rock climbing.
Sport climbing requires strength, endurance, balance and flexibility, and it provides an excellent workout. However, frequent climbing can lead to overuse injuries, especially in the hands, wrists elbows and shoulders.
Common injuries include:
Climber’s finger: damage to the flexor tendon pulleys that encircle and support the tendons that cross the finger joints. Climber’s finger is caused by putting more weight on the fingers than they can support. Treatment may include rest, ice, anti-inflammatory medication and range-of-motion exercises.
Climber’s elbow: this usually refers to strain of the brachialis tendon, but it can also refer to medial epicondylitis or lateral epicondylitis. For all of these, treatment may include rest, ice, anti-inflammatory medication and range-of-motion exercises.
Rotator cuff injuries: these are more common in older climbers. The rotator cuff is a group of muscles and tendons that stabilize the shoulder. Treatment may include ice, rest, physical therapy and sometimes corticosteroid injections or surgery.
Strengthening the upper body can reduce the risk of injury. The following exercises can help:
Pull-ups can develop strength in the shoulder, back, stomach, forearms and grip. One-armed pullups are especially useful.
Fingers can be strengthened by squeezing a tennis ball, holding for five seconds and relaxing, then repeating 30 to 40 times.
Lateral raises can strengthen the shoulders. Standing with your feet about shoulder-width apart, hold a light weight in each hand. With your elbows slightly flexed, raise your arms out to the sides until they are at shoulder level, with your palms facing the floor. Slowly lower your arms, then repeat the sequence, doing three sets of ten repetitions each.
As with any exercise, it’s best to warm up and stretch before rock climbing, and to maintain overall conditioning. If you’re new to climbing, a lesson is always a good idea.