Recognition and Prevention of Injuries in Recreational Rock Climbers

Article excerpt

During the past decade, many artificial climbing walls have appeared all across the nation (Rooks, 1997). With the increased availability of artificial walls, rock climbing has become one of the more popular activities the recreationists, physical educators, university students, and others. Sport rock climbing, which is climbing with a top rope (Rooks, 1997), is considered safe because the use of a top rope reduces the risk of traumatic or catastrophic falls. Because of the increased popularity of indoor rock climbing, however, the type and number of injuries that recreational climbers suffer has changed (Haas & Meyers, 1995).

Rooks (1997) found that three-fourths of all elite and recreational sport rock climbers have suffered an upper-extremity injury (60% of these injuries were to the hand and wrist and 40% to the shoulder and elbow). Furthermore, recreational rock climbers have more chronic injuries than acute injuries (Haas & Meyers, 1995; Rohrbough, Mudge, & Schilling, 2000; Wright, Royle, & Marshall, 1998). These chronic injuries most often occur to the fingers, hand, wrist, elbow, and shoulder. Although the majority of injuries are in the upper body, Killian, Nishimoto, and Page (1998) found that 81 percent of their study's subjects also experienced foot pain while climbing; however, this was usually due to tight shoes. The purpose of this article is to identify the most common upper body injuries that rock climbers suffer. Descriptions of how these injuries occur, their treatment, and suggestions for injury prevention will also be provided. This information should enable recreational rock climbers and physical educators to create a safer climbing environment.

Grip Techniques and Hand Injuries

Sixty percent of all upper-extremity injuries to rock climbers occur to the hand and wrist (Rooks, 1997). Of these injuries, more than 50 percent are to the proximal joints in the fingers (Rooks, 1997). Generally speaking, rock-climbing grips and hand jam techniques cause these injuries. Rock climbers use five different handholds--the open, cling, vertical, pocket, and pinch grips. The open grip is used when the hand is able to grab onto large curves on the rock surface (figure 1). The cling grip, which is the most common, flexes the distal joints of the fingers over the rock surface while the thumb is flexed over the tip of the index finger (figure 2). Climbers use the vertical grip when they need to grasp tiny crevices in the rock (figure 3). For this grip, the fingertips secure the hand to the wall, while the force of the climber's weight is placed on the knuckles. The fourth grip, the pocket grip, requires climbers to insert one or two fingers into a hole in the rock surface, which then supports their weight (figure 4). The final grip that climbers use is the pinch grip. This grip secures climbers to the wall by pinching the rock surface between their thumb and index finger (figure 5).

In addition to the five grips, it also common for rock climbers to use hand jams. There are two general types of hand jams--the classic and the wedging. A classic hand jam lodges the climber's hand into a small crack, which anchors the climber to the wall (figure 6). Wedging (figure 7) consists of squeezing the fingers into a very small area on the rock wall (Haas & Meyers, 1995).

Although the mechanics of the grips and hand jam techniques vary, each one places an enormous amount of stress on a climber's fingers and hands. Since fingers and hands are constantly used to support a climber's weight, even though they are not designed to be weight-bearing structures, the risk of injury to them is great (Haas & Meyers, 1995). As a result, the most common hand injuries that climbers receive are collateral ligament sprains and flexor tendon ruptures and strains (Rohrbough, Mudge, & Schilling, 2000).

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Finger Injuries

In rock climbing, the fingers are very susceptible to injury due to the amount and direction of the forces that are placed on them. …