Tag Archives: overuse injuries

One Climber’s Story: Five Injury Case Studies (I)

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To round out this series on climbing injuries, the next few entries will get a little more personal as I present and discuss five injuries I’ve incurred during my life as a climber. I share these in the hopes that they might help other climbers/athletes first and foremost to avoid similar injuries. I also hope to help others understand that if and when injuries do occur, they can provide great insights and lessons for us in the moment as well as for our future selves as to what we should and shouldn’t do to avoid incurring such show-stopping injuries again. Every single injury or series of injuries I’ve lived through has led to a greater understanding of my own body and being, informing and shaping my life afterward in ways that I maybe never would have expected or been open to had the injury never happened.

Case Study One: Finger Injuries

Injury: One true tendon injury, in which pressing with my finger resulted in tendon pain in my forearm, along with multiple A2 tendon pulley injuries throughout my first few years of climbing, along with a reminder minor pulley injury more recently (several years ago).

Causal Factors: The worst finger injury I ever had, which involved the actual tendon rather than just the pulley, resulted from overuse/overtraining and poor technique. I was a young and inexperienced climber who crimped all the time (despite repeated but little-heeded warnings from many more experienced climbers that this would predispose me to finger injuries). I asked a better climber how they had gotten better, and they told me that they wouldn’t leave the gym until they completed what they’d set out to do that day.

Me being me (mentally willing and able to drive myself to extremes), I took this recommendation to an absurd level, as I so easily do – so I continued climbing on a finger that was already sore and tired until I actually really injured it. This is a great example of how the good old “no pain, no gain” theory can really hinder progress. I’m very good at using my mental ability to push my body past its actual limits, which is generally not a benefit for athletic improvement at all – it’s very counterproductive and results in the overtraining/overuse result time and time again, if it isn’t curtailed.

The other various pulley injuries I’ve incurred have always involved relatively minor strains in the A2 pulley in the base of my fingers. I’ve done all of my fingers except my pointers, I believe – though none of them bother me from these injuries anymore. The last time I did this, it illustrated what I theorize was a likely culprit in all of the prior pulley injuries. It was perhaps in 2009, and I was climbing in the gym and crimping on an edge on a steep overhang, moving sideways, when my heel hook popped and suddenly much of my body weight explosively and unexpectedly transferred to the crimping hand, straining the A2 in my pinky (thankfully not the other fingers this time!).

Recovery: Finger injuries tend to take a long time to heal, and climbing on them usually only makes them worse, a lesson I had to learn the hard way. My finger injury recovery period for the tendon took months; for the pulleys, I’d say about six weeks per pulley, give or take (I never tore any pulley entirely). I did stupidly try to climb hard on a few of them as a younger climber, and this (surprise, surprise) led to longer recovery times. For a great rundown on finger injuries and treatment plans, check out Eric Hӧrst’s excellent article on the Nicros website, “Finger Tendon Pulley Injury.”

Long-Term Result: That last pinky pulley injury provided an awesome reminder of why I gradually switched from crimping everything to retraining myself to become a default open-handed climber, who crimps only when need be. Open-handing changed my climbing for the better. Though as always, it was much harder to unlearn a bad technique/habit than it likely would have been to learn it right in the first place (i.e. not crimping every single hold I grabbed like my life depended on it), since I’ve become a default-open-hander, I have incurred only that pinky injury – and it was relatively minor and easy to handle, as I often don’t even use my pinky on climbing holds.

(My pinky is pretty short, so having it on a hold often changes the angle of my hand and arm and consequently the way I can move off of the hold, and it also impacts my reach if I try to get my pinky on the hold. Getting my pinky on the hold actually puts the rest of my fingers into a sort of half-crimped position, which might at least somewhat account for my original over-crimping.)

Anyhow, enough about my pinky – point of all of this is that the finger injuries led me to unlearn a less-efficient and more injury-prone default grip, and this has in turn saved me from a boatload of more finger injuries that I’m sure I would have incurred if I’d just kept on crimping like I did when I started.

Improve Your Sport Climbing (15): Injuries, Part 10 (HARD)

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Starting Back After an Injury (or Any Break)

Have you ever come back from an injury only to virtually immediately reinjure that place or injure another body part – or do you know/have you heard of someone who has? It seems so unfair, to put all that time into rehabilitation and recovery, only to be sidelined again right away. Causes for this are usually pretty obvious. Either a) the injured area wasn’t fully recovered and ready to be climbed on again and/or b) the climber in question came back into climbing by doing too much, too soon, and the body wasn’t in shape or ready to climb at the same level as before the injury-mandated hiatus from climbing.

After an injury or any break from climbing, come back slowly and give it time, just like you would ideally with any new training program. Do less than you think you can, and stop way before you think you’re done. This is a smart approach when you’re adding anything new to your climbing/training; you don’t go for broke or to total exhaustion, diving in the deep end and hoping you can swim right away. Instead, you lightly dip your toes in the water and check the temperature, and then you wait for a day or two to see how your toes feel before you put your whole lower leg in the water. And then you wait again, and eventually, as you build up/rebuild your strength and fitness and technical skills and so forth, you will be swimming in the deep end, free from injury, and ready to head out into the open ocean and explore the world.

This can be very difficult, of course, because as soon as you have the go-ahead and you’re feeling better, it can be hard to put the stops on yourself to prevent reinjury or new injury. Give yourself a time/difficulty limit for each session, and stick to it, knowing that in time, you won’t need to be quite so regimented, but that it’s very important now. Don’t get pressured by the fun factor or friends into doing more than you planned – while this can be okay when you’re at peak fitness levels now and again, coming back from injury isn’t the time to push your luck. Remind yourself that you don’t want to get benched again and that a little bit of climbing every other day is way better right now than a glut of climbing followed by two months on the bench (or longer).

And, as mentioned before, keep all of what you’ve learned from your injury in your mind and your planning for future climbing and training efforts once you’re back to full capability. Draw on the experience and lessons of the injury so that you don’t get involved in a hateful cycle of regular reinjury or new injuries. Make sure you know what caused the injury as much as you possibly can and that you also have measures in place that will help you and your partners prevent such injuries in the future. In this way, you make the most of your injury and can actually make it into an overall positive experience rather than an entirely negative one – a process that I’ll delve into in greater detail in the following five entries, which will consist of personal case studies of injuries I’ve incurred as a climber.

This multipart series of blogs and articles starts here, in case you have to catch up – you’ll also find a full table of contents, complete with links, in that entry. My designation of each area as “easy,” “medium” or “hard” is purely subjective. I’ve arrived at the designations from my personal experience garnered from 20+ years of climbing along with observations I’ve made as a climbing coach/certified personal trainer. You may find some of the areas harder or easier to change. You also might not agree with me or my take on things. That’s fine – feel free to take it or leave it as you wish! Also, remember that the information I provide here is purely offered as advice and that no exercises or training program should be undertaken without receiving medical clearance from a healthcare professional.

One other caveat: As will be true for all of the entries and articles in this series, if you’ve already mastered or maxed out the topic at hand to the best of your ability level, you’ll reap far fewer benefits or none at all from my suggestions – good for you that you figured it out, but sorry I couldn’t help you out more. Happy climbing and training!

Improve Your Sport Climbing (15): Injuries, Part 9 (HARD)

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So I’m Injured, Now What? (III) – Mental and Emotional Challenges

In addition to physical pain, the mental and emotional aspect of climbing injuries should not be downplayed or underestimated, especially severe injuries that put you squarely on the sidelines for a lengthy period of time and/or call into question your body’s ability to handle what you want it to be able to do (climb!). It’s common to feel depressed, irritable and unmotivated when injured, and it’s also common to feel guilty about having such feelings, e.g. “I don’t have a right to feel depressed; I still have all the normal luxuries of my Western life so I’m just being selfish by having these types of feelings at all.”

While we undoubtedly enjoy an incredible quality of life compared to many other places in the world, one that allows us the indulgence of filling our free time with things like rock climbing, this doesn’t take away from the fact that a sudden decrease in physical activity – and especially one that’s so engaging and consuming as rock climbing (or any similarly pursued athletic endeavor) – can lead to a cascade of mental-emotional impacts, suffered as a result from the abrupt removal of the regular activity level and the consequent mental-physical-emotional disruption. In other words, it’s not just you being a selfish person for feeling badly that you can’t climb; it’s your whole being reacting to the situation – and you feel it in your mind as well as your body. And if you’re going to feel guilty that not climbing is making you feel depressed or down or grumpy, you might as well just feel guilty all the time about climbing even while you can climb, too – the same rules apply; it’s a privilege to have the freedom to climb at all.

So don’t feel badly that you feel badly; this is unproductive and will only make the feeling bad even worse. Instead, try to acknowledge your feelings and accept them as valid, and do what you can to mitigate symptoms and find joy in the process of injury recovery. How to do this will vary for each individual. For some injured folks, being around other climbers or hearing about rock climbing only compounds the sense of depression at not being able to participate (sort of like hanging out and drinking water while all your friends are getting hammered to hilarity on the hard stuff); for others, being around climbing and climbing conversion gets them outside of themselves and helps remind them of what they’re working back toward being able to do.

Another great perspective to keep is to remember that all is not lost – that you will not “lose everything,” which is a common fear for injured climbers/athletes. Depending on how long you’re out, you will lose some fitness, sure, and if you’re out for a substantial time with no climbing-relevant physical activity (a month or longer), you may experience some strength loss, too. But, it takes the body much longer to lose strength gains than it does to make them; the body is reluctant to let go of such hard-fought gains (strength gains take a long time to manifest when compared to endurance gains). Also, once you’ve worn a path into your body once, it’s way easier to get back to that level again than it was to get there in the first place; the body “remembers” where you were (not exactly correct, but a good image/way to think about it). And your brain does remember how to climb, though it may feel rusty at first when you get back. You will not be starting at square one, and you’re likely to get back to where you were before the injury much faster than you might expect.

Staying physically active, as mentioned in the previous entry, is a great way to help decrease withdrawal-from-climbing and concern-about-future-climbing symptoms, as is a proactive rehabilitation/climbing-training plan that is workable without causing further harm while you’re injured. Another coping mechanism is to delve into an entirely different activity (physical or not) that you normally don’t have time to do while you’re climbing but that you’re interested in, like taking an online or community course on a topic of interest, volunteering for a worthy cause, and so forth. Keeping yourself occupied instead of spending your normal climbing/training time perseverating on what you can’t do and feeling sorry for yourself can go a long way to keeping your spirits relatively high, which in turn can actually influence the pace/outcome of your injury in terms of healing time.

“Emerging and converging evidence support the perspective that the mind and body are inextricably linked and function in an integrative manner to mediate the manifestation of maladaptive autonomic nervous system responses (ANS) that can result in symptoms and eventual illness, and in the realm of sports, drive competitive anxiety, reduced attention, diminished motor control and consequent poor performance. … Identifiable mind-body processes and interactions that have been harnessed therapeutically to ameliorate symptoms and promote well-being have also been shown to enhance self-regulation and improve performance.” (from Evidence-Based Applied Sport Psychology: A Practitioner’s Manual, by Roland A. Carlstedt, Ph.D.)

This multipart series of blogs and articles starts here, in case you have to catch up – you’ll also find a full table of contents, complete with links, in that entry. My designation of each area as “easy,” “medium” or “hard” is purely subjective. I’ve arrived at the designations from my personal experience garnered from 20+ years of climbing along with observations I’ve made as a climbing coach/certified personal trainer. You may find some of the areas harder or easier to change. You also might not agree with me or my take on things. That’s fine – feel free to take it or leave it as you wish! Also, remember that the information I provide here is purely offered as advice and that no exercises or training program should be undertaken without receiving medical clearance from a healthcare professional.

One other caveat: As will be true for all of the entries and articles in this series, if you’ve already mastered or maxed out the topic at hand to the best of your ability level, you’ll reap far fewer benefits or none at all from my suggestions – good for you that you figured it out, but sorry I couldn’t help you out more. Happy climbing and training!