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The most common types of climbing injuries

Climbing is a sport that requires a lot of courage and an adventurous spirit, especially as not everyone can overcome the vertigo of hanging at great heights on a rope, let alone bouldering where no belay is used!

Climbers can injure themselves from head to toe, while climbing or descending the rock face due to various reasons such as trauma or overuse. Join us and find out what the most common rock climbing injuries are. We’ll also show you some ways to prevent these conditions. Here we go!

What are the most common types of climbing injuries?

The most common rock climbing injuries can be classified according to the area in which they occur. On the one hand, it must be said that the most affected areas belong to the upper extremities. However, other areas such as the lower limbs can also be injured in this sport, especially the knees.

The most common sports injuries in climbing are:

Shoulder injuries

Shoulder injuries account for 17% of all injuries associated with the sport. Most are due to overuse rather than specific trauma. Repetitive movements of the shoulder while climbing can damage this area over time. The greater the difficulty and frequency, the greater the risk.

The most common shoulder injuries in rock climbing are:

  • SLAP injuries: This is a partial or complete tear of the upper part of the glenoid labrum, a fibrocartilaginous ring located in the shoulder. It can be caused by repetitive movements over the head or by trauma (fall on the arm in extension, strong traction).
  • Rotator cuff injuries: Climbers can suffer from rotator cuff (RM) tears and tendinitis. On the one hand, tendinitis consists of inflammation of the RM tendons and is mainly caused by overuse. On the other hand, tears involve the rupture of the muscle and/or tendon fibres of the RM, and can be of traumatic or degenerative aetiology.
  • Shoulder dislocation: This occurs when the humerus pulls out of the glenoid joint cavity of the scapula. This dislocation can be partial (subluxation) or complete (dislocation). It is caused by trauma such as a forceful fall, stretch or twist. It may involve damage to adjacent tissues.
  • Biceps injuries: Tendonitis and biceps strains suffered by many climbers are prominent here. Tendonitis involves inflammation of the upper biceps tendon that attaches to the shoulder bones. This tendon can also be strained, i.e. overstretched or torn.
  • Shoulder bursitis: This is an inflammation of one of the bursae in the shoulder. The subacromial bursa is one of the most commonly affected. It is caused by overuse, trauma such as a blow, among other possible causes.

Hand, finger and wrist injuries

These are among the most common sports injuries in rock climbing. In fact, some estimate that almost half of all climbing-related injuries occur to the hand and wrist. These areas are the focus of a lot of stress and risk when climbing, so they can suffer from overuse injuries or trauma.

The most common hand and wrist injuries in rock climbing are:

  • Finger pulley injury: Occurs when the finger pulleys (fibrous bands that hold the flexor tendons against the bones) are overstretched or torn. The A2 and A4 pulleys are the most prone to injury, although the other pulleys can also be affected. Basically this injury can be caused by excessive load on the flexed fingertips.
  • Triangular fibrocartilage complex tear: This is a wrist injury that affects the triangular fibrocartilage complex (TFCC), a structure that provides stability and load transmission. The TFCC can be torn by trauma (fall with an outstretched arm, twisting…) or due to progressive degeneration (ageing, overuse…).
  • Strain of the flexor tendons of the fingers: This is the overstretching or tearing of the flexor tendons of the fingers. It happens when the finger is forced to over-stretch while flexed, as can occur during climbing.
  • Collateral ligament sprain of the fingers: This is an overstretching or tearing of the collateral ligaments of the finger joints. It is caused by trauma or traction involving forced lateral movement of the finger. This can occur in climbing when performing holds such as gaston or sidepull, for example.
  • Fractures: Climbers may suffer partial or total breakage of a bone in the hand or wrist. This can occur due to trauma such as a fall or a blow from a rock. Fractures can also arise from overload or stress.
  • Dislocation of the fingers: Occurs when the bones of the fingers or thumb slip out of joint. It can be caused by trauma such as a fall, crushing, overextension, etc., which places significant stress on the joint, resulting in separation.
  • Tenosynovitis: In general, this tendinitis involves inflammation of the sheath covering the tendon. Climbers may develop tenosynovitis in the flexor tendons of their fingers. Similarly, these athletes may develop de Quervain’s tenosynovitis, which affects the abductor pollicis longus and extensor pollicis brevis tendons.
  • Lumbrical muscle strain: This refers to the overstretching or tearing of any of the lumbrical muscles in the hand. It can occur when one finger is stretched while the adjacent fingers are flexed.

Knee injuries

Knee injuries in rock climbing are very common. Some are of traumatic etiology and can occur when performing one of these movements or when falling accidentally. Similarly, climbers can also suffer from overuse injuries such as bursitis.

The most common knee injuries in climbing are:

  • Meniscal tear: Refers to a partial or complete tear of the meniscus, the C-shaped cartilage in the knee. It can happen from forced twisting or twisting of the knee, especially while bearing weight.
  • Knee sprain: Occurs when one or more ligaments in the knee are overstretched or torn. The anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) and medial collateral ligament (MCL) are among the most commonly affected, although the other ligaments can also be injured. It is caused by trauma that puts too much stress on the ligament, such as a sudden twist or fall.
  • Patellar dislocation: Occurs when the patella, the anterior triangular bone of the knee, slips out of its natural place. It is traumatic in etiology and can be caused by a blow, fall or forced twisting of the leg.
  • Fracture: Climbers are prone to fracture (partial or total breakage of a bone) at the knee. The tibia, femur and patella are the three bones that make up the knee and can be fractured. This is usually the result of a fall in the case of climbers.
  • Knee bursitis: This is inflammation of one or more bursae belonging to the knee. It can be caused by overuse, trauma (blow, fall), among other factors. The stress caused by rock climbing movements can also cause this condition.

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How to prevent injuries when practising rock climbing or mountain sports?

How to prevent injuries when practising rock climbing or mountain sports?

If after reviewing the previous section you are afraid of getting hurt when rock climbing up or down the wall, then you should read on. Below, we will give you some methods and suggestions to prevent sports injuries when climbing.

  • Warm up well: It is essential to warm up well before the sporting activity in order to prepare the body and avoid injuries. This stage should first include aerobic exercises and dynamic stretching. Subsequently, simple climbs should be performed, progressively increasing the level of difficulty.
  • Finish training sessions with a cool down: It is necessary to cool down after the climbing session. This will allow, among other things, to eliminate tensions and waste in the muscles, leaving them healthy and ready for the next sessions. Light cardio exercises, static stretching, breathing and massage should be performed at this stage.
  • Good nutrition and hydration: Poor nutrition and hydration increase the risk of injury. Therefore, the climber must consume a diet that adequately combines the different nutrients (carbohydrates, proteins, fats…). This diet must be adapted to the individual and his or her objectives, and the guidance of a nutritionist would be excellent. It is also important to stay hydrated when rock climbing.
  • Improve your physical condition: It is essential that the climber has the right physical condition for climbing. In general, in this sport it is important to have sufficient strength, power, flexibility and endurance. Developing these qualities is vital to perform well and avoid injury.
  • Sports massage: Sports massage is ideal for the diagnosis, prevention and treatment of sports injuries in rock climbing and other disciplines. They are basically used to prepare the climber for climbing and to promote tissue recovery.
  • Use of hot and cold therapies: This is also known as contrast therapy as it involves the use of alternating hot and cold. It generates a pumping effect on circulation that helps reduce inflammation, pain and fatigue. It is therefore indicated for the treatment and prevention of injuries.
  • Use of compression garments: Compression clothing (sleeves, shorts, stockings, t-shirts…) are elastic and smaller than the area to be covered, so they generate pressure. They are credited with various benefits such as speeding up muscle recovery, increasing performance and attenuating muscle vibrations. Such benefits may help reduce the risk of sports injuries.
  • Use of acupressure therapies: This is a therapy of Chinese origin that involves applying pressure to specific areas of the body. Although similar to acupuncture, it differs from acupuncture in that it does not use needles but other means, such as hands and elbows, to apply pressure. It is considered as an alternative therapy to deal with pain and muscle tension, therefore, many use it in the treatment and prevention of injuries.
  • Use of thermotherapy and cryotherapy: Thermotherapy uses heat to generate an analgesic and relaxing effect, as well as increasing circulation and elasticity. Cryotherapy, on the other hand, helps to relieve pain, inflammation and spasticity. Therefore, both therapies are indicated to treat and prevent common sports injuries in rock climbing.
  • Use of appropriate equipment: It is important to use the best quality ropes, carabiners, belay devices, harnesses and other equipment. Clothing should be comfortable so that it allows a wide range of movement. It is important to wear a helmet and good climbing shoes. All this reduces the risk of injury.

How to apply the RICE therapy to treat first aid climbing injuries?

How to apply the RICE therapy to treat first aid climbing injuries?

The RICE therapy is indicated for the treatment of acute sports injuries in climbing. There is an update of this protocol called PRICE, although less well known, this method adds a new initial step: protection. Both tehrapies are especially recommended in the care of injuries in the acute phase, during the first 48 to 72 hours after the injury has occurred.

The steps for applying the PRICE protocol to acute sports injuries in rock climbing are:

  • Protection: In this step the injured area should be protected by avoiding the activity that caused the injury. It is important to immobilise the area in question with the help of an immobiliser such as a sling among others.
  • Rest: At this stage, the affected area should be rested for 48 hours. However, it is important to make slight movements that do not compromise the patient’s integrity to avoid stiffness.
  • Ice: Cryotherapy should be used to reduce inflammation and pain associated with the injury. It is sufficient to apply a cold compress to the affected area in 20-minute sessions. This can be done in 6 to 8 sessions per day.
  • Compression: At this stage it is necessary to put pressure on the affected area to firm it up and promote circulation, reducing inflammation. In general, it is recommended to bandage the area with a fabric that has some elasticity. Do not over-tighten or you risk cutting off circulation, an undesirable effect.
  • Elevation: This step is particularly indicated in the case of lower or upper limb injuries. The injured limb should be elevated to a height above the heart, resting on a cushioned surface such as a pillow. This will help to reduce swelling and pain.
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