Friday, September 11, 2020

Rocking the Wall

by Constance Karwandyar, PT
If you’ve ever been inside Lakeshore Sport and Fitness at the Illinois Center in downtown Chicago, the first thing you’ll likely notice is the monumental rock climbing wall. Spanning 10 stories, this wall currently sits as the tallest indoor rock wall in North America! While humans have always been drawn to scaling heights, rock climbing as a common indoor sport only dates back to the 1980s. As the sport grows in popularity, so too, unfortunately, do the number of rock climbing related injuries that often go undiagnosed and untreated.

According to a recently-published article in PT in Motion magazine, some of the most common rock climbing related injuries involve the hands, elbow, and shoulder due to the pulling nature of the sport and strong need for finger and hand holds. Landing and falling related injuries are also common in the foot and ankle. Jared Vagy, DPT - dubbed “The Climbing Doctor” due to his extensive experience in both physical therapy and rock climbing - claims that 40% of rock climbing injuries are in the fingers. Strains to the pulleys of the finger are common due to the overuse of the flexors of the fingers and wrist. The pulleys on the palm side of the fingers work to hold the finger flexor tendons close as they slide back and forth when we curl and extend our fingers (think of the rings on a fishing pole that the fishing line runs through). A strain or rupture to one could cause bowstringing of the flexor tendons, difficulty with curling and extending the fingers, swelling, and pain.

An illustration of the flexor tendons in the fingers.
By Steve Graepel,
As with any sport, injury prevention and education is a top concern for physical therapists.
Imparting specific and proper warm-up techniques to climbers is key to making sure they prime their entire bodies before they ascend any indoor wall or mountain face. Using larger hand holds on the first ascend allows proper blood flow to enter the upper extremities, especially in the hand and fingers. Climbers can also use a “downclimb” to work these muscles eccentrically, lowering themselves in a slow and controlled manner instead of repelling down the wall on the first climb. Properly warming up “pulling muscles” such as lats, biceps, and rhomboids will also ensure proper blood flow and tissue temperature before climbers begin. 

Even with proper warm-up technique, injuries do still occur. Rehabbing a climbing injury takes some critical thinking to identify the root of the injury and not just simply treat the symptoms. For example, if a climber experiences a finger injury, it is important to assess shoulder, core, and lower body strength, as a deficit in any of these categories can cause an over-reliance on the fingers during holds and grips. Additionally, working on upper body strengthening and stability training in a closed kinematic chain (hand on the ground, wall, or rock wall) as opposed to open kinematic chain (hand free in the air such as swinging a baseball or performing a bicep curl) can mimic the way the rotator cuff and scapular muscle have to work together on the rock wall.

Another key component to prevention and treatment is training the antagonist muscle groups (or the opposing/opposite muscles). As previously mentioned, climbers tend to overuse and overdevelop the forearm/finger flexors so working on strengthening the forearm/finger extensors to improve balance is important. Below you will find a few examples of how to strengthen finger extensors at home.

(L) Half Crimp Extensor Isometric, (R) Open-Handed Extensor Isometric
Resisted Finger Extension

As with any injury, thorough assessment of strength, range of motion, and body mechanics is key to a proper diagnosis and treatment approach. No two rock faces are the same, just like no two finger injuries are the same. If you have experienced a rock climbing injury or are interested in learning proper warm up and injury prevention techniques before your next climb, come see one of our experienced clinicians. Complimentary injury assessments are also available in-person or via telehealth.


Ries, Eric. “It’s Lovely at the Top.” PT In Motion Magazine, June 2020

Ries. Eric. “The Free Solo Phenomenon.” PT In Motion, June 2020 

“Taking and Analyzing Risks with the Climbing Doctor.” The Prehab Guys Audio Experience 

podcast. Episode #47. 2 May 2020.

The Rockulus: Learn the Ropes.

Vagy, Jared. Climb Injury-Free: A Proven Injury Prevention and Rehabilitation System.