Luckily and as common as they are, all of these injuries can be recovered from given the right approach and ample time for recovery.
In this post we have a look at some of the classic climbing finger injuries.
A Trip Down Memory Lane
I remember my first finger injury like it was yesterday.
Five days straight of hard training left my left middle finger a little sore. So I did what any bright 20 year old climber would do: some more bouldering.
An hour of hard closed crimping was followed by a nice distinct “pop” in my left middle finger.
After a diagnosis of a torn A2 pulley, what followed was a lot of climbing downtime, self-pity and the feeling of “I’ll never crimp again”!
Type of Climbing Finger Injuries
Firstly, finger injuries seem to be of the acute type. There’s high strain, followed by something straining, tearing or rupturing. Ouch.
As there are no muscles in the fingers, injuries are either ligament or tendon damage, which unfortunately take much longer to heal.
The most common culprits:
- Pulley injuries
- Flexor tendon injuries
- Collateral ligament injuries
These are soft tissue related and can be ranked in terms of severity:
- Grade 1. Strain. A bit of physio please.
- Grade 2. Tear. Did anyone say call a Doctor?
- Grade 3. Rupture. Bring me the surgeon!
Pain with all these types of injuries is quite severe, as with most acute injuries. Direct pressure will make you call for your mummy, as will crimping or even open-handed.
Treating mild versions means putting your feet up, followed by a balance of protection, scar tissue mitigation and then progressive loading to make the injured tissue reform correctly.
If you’ve gone down hardcore alley, you may require full immobilisation or in case of complete ruptures, please stop by your local surgeons office.
So, 20% of climbers are already familiar with these.
Pulleys are little ligaments that wrap your flexor tendon to the underside of your fingers. Without these, flexing those forearms wouldn’t lead to much grip power.
When you’re crimping too hard or putting too much strain on them, these little things can strain and tear. In the worst cases they rupture. This leaves the tendon in a detached state at the injury point, giving way to a phenomenon called “bowstringing”.
The most common injured pulley is the A2 which is located near the base of your finger, just before the finger joins your palm. Other pulley injuries do also happen though are less frequent.
Flexor Tendon Injuries
The flexor tendons run from the flexor tendon origin at the inside of your elbow (the knobbly bit), all the way down through your forearm, wrist, palm and down each finger.
When you get your pump on these help transfer all the muscle power into finger contraction strength.
You guessed it: tears can occur along the tendon.
Pain is generally felt within the palm of your hand and wrist. Like acute injuries it’s tender and can cause movement in certain fingers to become difficult.
Collateral Ligament Strains
Injured collateral ligaments are the skiers equivalent of pulley injuries in climbers! Here though we’re talking about the finger joint collateral ligaments.
These collateral ligaments surround your finger joints and provide support from sideways loading. Think vertical finger jamming, sidepulls or gastons. These are the usual culprits for injured collateral ligaments.
The middle finger usually gets most of the trauma here, though strains do happen in the index or ring finger.
As with ligaments strains in general there is usually swelling, localized pain and tenderness.
Climbing Finger Injuries Recovery Stages
Your injured tissues will be going through a lot in these difficult times.
Just like a recovering alcoholic it’s good to know the stages they’re going through.
The different stages can be summarized as:
- Week 1. Lots of inflammation and pain. Apply ice where needed and painkillers as prescribed. Lots of sympathy from your better half always helps.
- Weeks 2 – 4. Rebuild & Repair. New collagen is the aim of the game in scar tissue formation. Massages and TLC to the sensitive area work wonders.
- Weeks 4 onwards. Remodelling. The lower quality temporary collagen is replaced with the real deal. Progressive loading is required here.
Recovery Exercises For Climbing Finger Injuries
Other than what you actually injured, it’s also important to know when exactly you injured it.
During the first few weeks after injury, it’s most important to rest, control inflammation and recover range of motion. After this, progressive remodelling of the tissue is required through progressive loading and strength exercises. Progressive being the aim of the game here!
Also, as tendons and ligaments take so long to heal, it’s always best to over-estimate how long you have to take off than be too aggressive and jump back in too early. Unfortunately, time off the wall is required at the beginning.
During the first few weeks:
- Inflammation control. Use icing and rest from climbing or any activity that requires finger strength or engagement. Taping can provide support if required. Painkillers can help, though using ibuprofen for too long has been showed to slow tendon remodelling.
- Range of motion. Progressively move your fingers joints through their full range, without any resistance, multiple times per day.
Once inflammation and tenderness are under control with no pain, active range of motion and a slow introduction of resistance are recommended. These can be:
- Rice bucket exercises
- Finger Putty
- Resistance bands
- Stress balls
After this a gradual return to climbing can be introduced. This means easy routes on big holds for at least a few weeks. Slowly test the injured fingers by applying a bit of pressure to ensure pain isn’t elicited.
Avoiding Climbing Finger Injuries Once Recovered
Once we’ve recovered from an injury, all the pain and physio torture are often forgotten in the rear-view mirror.
To avoid finger injuries the following is prescribed:
- Warm-up properly
- Reduce fully closed crimping.
- Vary the different types of handholds and finger positions during training.
- Reduced over-gripping.
Finger injuries have to be one of the most annoying climbing injuries out there.
Who would have thought that such tiny little ligaments and tendons could cause such trouble and sadness, keeping us away from the wall.
The trick is to be patient and slowly get back into climbing, really testing out smaller holds and putting increasing strain on your fingers to make sure you don’t re-injure yourself.
If you do get a finger injury then at least tell yourself that the prognosis is good and climbers do recover well.
It’s all about following the process and remember that recovery is never linear. There’s always ups and downs. What’s important is that the overall trajectory is up and towards the right.
How long can a climbing finger injury take to heal?
Depending on the severity, 1-2 weeks of rest followed by 6-8 weeks of a gradual return to climbing. Lots of TLC in the process.
How can you tell if a finger injury is serious?
If you hear the frequent popping sound followed by localized pain, then unfortunately you’ve probably got a serious pulley injury. It’s important to see a medical professional to get a correct diagnosis and get on the correct physio path.