You’re a novice who’s caught the bug. It is such a great sport and you are improving and learning so much. You just want to go and go. There can be one little problem, however, especially as you begin to pull harder. Climbing puts a lot of strain on specific tendons and joints. You could be one move away from taking your first, or next, injury-forced break.
So how do you avoid injury in climbing? Don’t climb? Swaddle yourself in bubble wrap? How often do injuries occur in climbing anyway?
Let’s talk about research, and then get practical.
A 2009 study of 355 Swedish climbers published in the Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in
Sports found 4.2 injuries for every 1,000 hours of climbing. For a fun comparison, consider that in 2007 Mark Brandenburg and his colleagues published a paper in the International SportMed Journal that looked into the injury rate of bull riding and found 1,440 injuries for every 1,000 hours. It’s important, though, to be careful with comparing studies, which differ regarding gender, age and methodology—factors that could change how we perceive risk and who we consider to be at risk. For example, while the amusing comparison between bull riding and climbing may give the impression that injury rates among climbers are low, Kaikanani Woollings and her colleagues in Calgary, Alberta, Canada published a paper in the British Journal of Sports Medicine describing the rate of climbing injury in 2014 as “high,” comparing it to sports like youth ice hockey.
By sticking to some simple principles, understanding when circumstances lead to enhanced
risk, and being deliberate about your approach to your climbing gym session, you can manage your exposure to injury, especially over the long term.
Take regular inventory of how you’re feeling and moving.
A 2016 study published by Gareth Jones in the medical journal Current Sports Medicine Reports recommends distinguishing climbing injuries by these categories: impact (e.g. falling), non-impact acute trauma (e.g. sudden pain during climbing), and chronic overuse. However, there is a gray area—you may have injury without pain or even pain without injury. With some injuries developing without pain, it may seem as if a single traumatic event occurred when in fact there may have been a lead-up of imperceptible or subtle micro-trauma.
To combat all types of injuries, increase your awareness of how you’re feeling and climbing. For example, you can ask yourself whether you are avoiding some moves or holds because you’re worried about injury. More subtly, ask yourself what type of climbing you favor—chances are you’re spending extra time in specific climbing positions or on specific holds while neglecting others. Also, ask a friend or coach if you’re favoring a part of your body while climbing.
Ultimately, if you’re avoiding holds out of fear of injury seek guidance from a coach or PT. If you’re avoiding holds or moves simply because you don’t like them, find problems or routes with those elements and do all kinds of moves, including the ones you don’t like, everytime you climb.
However, many of the issues just may not be noticeable, so you’ll be forced to mitigate through best practice recommendations.
Healthcare is always an option. Climbers love telling you that they’re currently climbing through injuries. Research articles published by Gudmund Grønhaug and Atle Saeterbakken in BMJ Open Sport & Exercise Medicine in both 2018 and 2019 found that intermediate and expert climbers were the most likely to get chronic injuries, and also the most likely to hesitate to seek out professional advice.
In fact, as Grønhaug said: “If you are in doubt on whether you should seek out help, there is no doubt. Do it!” Doctors are great, but so are PTs—they are the front lines of rehab and experts at making your body more resilient.
Dig deep to try hard … but know when to back down. Climbers encourage one another to dig deep and try harder. There’s often nothing wrong with this, except when it includes a shock-load or involves more tries than you intended. When your foot cuts, the shock may load somewhere—often a shoulder or finger, resulting in torn pulleys or tendons. Avoid moves that will put excessive force on individual limbs, or set a limit to the number of climbs you do and stick to that to prevent overdoing it.
Digging a little too deep may also result in a fall injury, including a rolled ankle or locked knee. Certain moves may force spinning in the air, or a movement may end in lateral falling, which creates forces and/or timing you may not be able to cope with. Further, some people fall better—or worse—than others. You may need to (a) work on your fear of falling, and/or (b) strengthen certain elements of your legs, butt or back to handle the dangers of a fall. Perception of weaknesses and risks are learned skills, and as important to you as strengthening.
The newbie syndrome. One pair of prolific climbing-injury researchers, the German doctors Volker Schöffl and Christoph Lutter—specialists in climbing sports medicine—recently reviewed climbing literature and the available evidence. In a 2017 letter to the medical journal Wilderness & Environmental Medicine, they suggest modern styles of setting—such as double-clutches and run-and-jumps— put new, untrained climbers at a disadvantage, leading to increases in both the rate and severity of falling and movement-specific injury. They called the problem “the newbie syndrome.” Beware the newbie syndrome.
Use caution and self-awareness to keep your body in check. You can learn more about risks in climbing by going to the Beta Angel Project’s website and looking under the section on “Syntheses.”