Rock Climbing Injuries 101
Rock climbing is an increasingly popular sport in the U.S., with upwards of nine million participants. 1 Although it is a non-contact and non-impact sport, it is not without risk of injury. Up to 50–80 percent of regular participants report a rock climbing injury per year, 2,3 with the types of injury varying by the type and level of climbing.
Elite climbers are most at risk for injuries to the fingers while less experienced climbers have a wider range of injuries. Hand and wrist injuries have been thought of as contributing up to three quarters of rock climbing injuries, with tendon and ligament injuries, and other fractures among the most common types of injury. 4 Climbers are also at risk for shoulder injuries, including SLAP tears.
Different hand grips or holds can place significant demands on the hands and fingers. 5 The cling grip and pocket grip place very high demands on tendons. To reduce the stress on fingers, climbers may use finger tape. Many climbers will train, or climb on routes that require the use of one or two fingers on a hold. This can lead to chronic overuse or acute ruptures of tendons. Crack climbing can also be a high-risk maneuver, as the finger(s) are wedged into cracks in the rock. If the climber falls or slips while crack climbing, this can result in significant injury, including ligament tears.
While overuse injuries of the hand/wrist and upper extremity are very common, acute traumatic injuries to the foot and ankle are also very common, especially in outdoor settings. The appropriate use of padded landing pad for outdoor climbers, can dramatically reduce the risk of these injuries when the climber falls from relatively low height
Climbing gyms and indoor climbing walls are increasingly used throughout the U.S. and Europe. These gyms allow for year-round training, and provide an opportunity for novices to learn more about the sport under controlled circumstances. Most climbers believe that injury risk is much lower in a climbing gym, due to the use of padded landing sites, crash pads, and well trained spotters or belay partners. These spotters or belay partners allow the climbers to practice difficult moves with appropriate backup.
All in all, rock climbing can be a fun and engaging summer activity with a few safety precautions and practice.
1. Outdoor Industry Foundation. 2005 Outdoor Recreation Participation Study. Boulder CO: Outdoor Industry Foundation, 2006. 2. Jones G, Asghar A, Llewellyn DJ. The epidemiology of rock-climbing injuries. Br J Sports Med. 2008;42:773–8. 3. Gerdes EM, Hafner JW, Aldag JC. Injury patterns and safety practices of rock climbers. J Trauma. 2006;61:1517–25. 4. Merritt AL, Huang JI. Hand injuries in rock climbing. J Hand Surg Am. 2011 Nov;36(11):1859–61. 5. Shea KG, Shea OF, Meals RA. Manual demands and consequences of rock climbing. J Hand Surg Am. 1992 Mar;17(2):200–5.