Climbing tends to attract a rather obsessive breed of people. Unfortunately, obsessing over an extremely strenuous activity makes you extremely injury prone. You have most likely noticed that injury is among the more popular topics of conversation at your local crag or gym. Make sure that you can contribute to that conversation with useful tips for injury prevention, instead of a personal list of injuries.
This article only describes the personal experiences and recommendations of a self-proclaimed injured climber dealing with climber’s elbow. If you already suffer from chronic pain or discomfort, consult a physical therapist for a personalized rehabilitation program.
Golfer’s elbow is a term describing tendinosis of the medial elbow tendons (also called medial epicondylitis). This is an irritation or deterioration of the tendons connecting to the knob on the lower, inner elbow (See Figure 1). The gradual onset of this chronic injury is a result of microscopic tears that are not allowed to properly heal. A frequent and strenuous climbing schedule may subject your tendons to stress and strain before they are fully recuperated. These micro tears accumulate and grow over weeks or months and eventually turn into full-fledged tendinosis. It may also develop as a result of muscle imbalance in the forearm.
At first, the pain is dull and might be mistaken for a slight soreness after a day of climbing. However, if the pain is recurring and is experienced during everyday tasks, you may have tendinosis. The gradual onset and lack of inflammation or swelling makes tendinosis difficult to detect.
Tennis Elbow is a term for tendinosis of the lateral elbow tendons (also called lateral epicondylitis). The symptoms are similar to Golfer’s Elbow but afflict the antagonistic muscles of the forearm on the upper, outer part of the elbow (See Figure 1). Due to the flexor intensive nature of rock climbing, your tensors are relatively underdeveloped. This imbalance is the usual suspect when it comes to tennis elbow.
There are several exercises that target your medial and lateral elbow tendons and allow for an isolated workout. Keeping them strong will help prevent any imbalance or weakness. Remember to perform these exercises with low resistance.
Reverse Wrist Curls
This exercise targets the lateral elbow tendons. While seated, rest your forearm on your thigh, desk or armchair so that your hand faces palm down and overhangs the knee by several inches. Grip a five to ten pound dumbbell, and begin with a straight wrist position. Curl the dumbbell upward until the hand is fully extended. Hold this top position for one second then lower the dumbbell to the starting position. Attempt 15 to 20 slow repetitions and avoid lowering the dumbbell below horizontal. Remember to rest between sets.
This exercise targets the medial elbow tendons. While seated, rest your forearm on your thigh, desk or armchair with your hand in the palm up position. Firmly grip a hammer (or heavy metal pipe) so that it’s parallel to the floor. Turn your hand inward and lift the hammer to a vertical position. Pause, and then slowly lower back to the starting position. Attempt 15 to 20 slow repetitions and avoid lowering the hammer below horizontal. Remember to rest between sets.
“Climber’s Elbow” is the second most common climbing injury according to a poll on Nicros.com. It is easy to misdiagnose, or worse, completely deny elbow tendon injuries. Keep in mind that proper treatment or prevention of tendon injuries is crucial. Stay healthy enough to make climbing a life long passion, not a short-lived phase!
Now to you
Have you experienced climber’s elbow? What methods of prevention and treatment have you found to be most effective? Share your experiences in the comments below.