What is this rock-climbing finger pain, and how do I heal it?
December 10, 2006 5:45 PM   Subscribe

What, exactly, is this rock-climbing finger pain, and how do I heal it?

I'd like to know what, physically, happened to my fingers (e.g. tore the tendon, bruised the bone) and how best to heal them.

I've been rock-climbing pretty regularly for about a month. About two weeks ago I started noticing a slight bruisey pain on my left and right ring fingers which I assumed was just that. Although it's still a relatively slight pain, it's now very painful if I bend the tips backward, and slightly painful to curl them in. I'm sure this is from too many small, slopey handholds that force you to bend your fingertips back to get a grip.

I've stopped climbing for the time being and on some recommendations ordered some "Theraputty" to squeeze. I'm perfectly happy to do what I need to heal up, but what I can't stand is not knowing what, exactly, happened to those fingers!

Has anyone experienced this and/or know what it is?
posted by TimeTravelSpeed to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (17 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
The medical professional who prescribed the Theraputty should have been able to give you a diagnosis.

And if you didn't see a medical professional, then you should, before you start an self-prescribed physical therapy plan. You could be harming your hands even more with the putty exercises.
posted by grouse at 6:04 PM on December 10, 2006

It's just your tendons and ligaments, and it takes time to heal and get used to.. climbing tiny little pinchers and slopers is pretty much unlike any other exercise you get, so, you're going to be sore for another month or two. Same thing with your forearms: it's much less muscle than it is tendons and ligaments, and they don't rebound quite as quickly. Just hang in there and work them with the putty and other exercises. As I understand it, tendonitis is from repeated motions without a broad range of other motions mixed in, so exercises that vary your movements are good.
posted by kcm at 6:10 PM on December 10, 2006

Also, when you do go, do some long easy stuff and some traverses to warm up. Launching into redpointing your latest project just tires your muscles out quickly without a proper period of endurance for your new-found tendons.. it's a lot better for your progress to do easy stuff for a long time now so that you can work on building your muscles later.
posted by kcm at 6:14 PM on December 10, 2006

Sounds like a mild tendon strain from overuse. Climbing puts a lot of force on these tendons, and the connective tissue develops much slower than muscle. Let pain be your guide, take it easy until it stops hurting. Reinforcing the tendon with tape on crimpy climbs can help you ease back into it, but best to wean yourself off of the tape to develop the strength of the tendon.

You are correct that holds which bend the tips back exert maximum force on these tendons, but these are called "crimps" not "slopers" which require an open-hand grip. In general you want to use openhand whenever possible as it is easier on the hand. Train only open-hand grip when hanging/campusing and reserve crimping for climbing where necessary.
posted by Manjusri at 6:24 PM on December 10, 2006

Here's another vote for warming your fingers up before you hit the hard stuff. I almost destroyed my fingers a couple of years ago climbing -- I've since had to stop alltogether, because my skill level is way above the strength I now have in my fingers, and my livelihood (computer programmer) depends on having those fingers intact and operating effectively.

I found that by far the most effective therapy for *me* was taping the fingers while I climbed, and doing a lot of v0 bouldering warmups instead of climbing right on the 5.10 and v4+'s that I was doing when I hurt my fingers the first time. It never really went away, even with a doctor who was also a rock climber giving me advice on physical therapy.
posted by SpecialK at 6:24 PM on December 10, 2006

Yep, you're tweaking your tendons; it's not a muscle or bone injury.

Some tips:

Keep hydrated. Your tendons are stretchier when you have enough water in your body, and this will prevent injury.

Don't focus on crimpy routes/problems. This isn't to say that you should avoid them altogether, but if you have a choice between something with a lot of open-hand holds and a lot of little crimps, do the open hand route. Your body will thank you, especially when you're first starting out.

Learn how to lock your thumbs over the tops of your index fingers on crimps. This will improve your grip on the hold and put less stress on your tendons.

As kcm pointed out, spend plenty of time warming up. This stretches out your tendons as well as your muscles.

Have fun.
posted by craven_morhead at 6:27 PM on December 10, 2006

These are relieving comments. As for the tape, my googling brought up an article that said that binding with tape really doesn't offer enough support to take the pressure off your tendons; that the tape's best use is to keep you from bending the finger, and to remind you that you're injured.

But I'm still not sure what's meant by "tweaking the tendon" or "mild tendon strain". Is there a more technical description of the injury? I'm usually tolerant with injuries and ailments but get frustrated when I can't imagine what the injury "looks like".
posted by TimeTravelSpeed at 6:40 PM on December 10, 2006

But I'm still not sure what's meant by "tweaking the tendon" or "mild tendon strain". Is there a more technical description of the injury?

Not without someone examining your hand.

[agreeing with grouse]

You're not going to get any more of an answer, based on a description alone, from AskMe--at least not one that is going to be accurate.

Yes, it's probably some sort of overuse phenomenon. You'll have to judge wether you think that's the case, or if it feels more severe. If the latter, seek some evaluation and go from there.

[/agreeing with grouse]
posted by Dr. Sam at 7:15 PM on December 10, 2006

Yeah, I agree with Grouse too. I think I just wanted to test the waters to get a feel for how common the problem was and what I should expect. I'll give my (terrible) doctor a call tomorrow. Ah HMOs.
posted by TimeTravelSpeed at 7:30 PM on December 10, 2006

It's essentially tendonitis.

Read this.

And this

And this.

It's a common problem, especially in climbing. Recovery time varies. Just go easy on the injured fingers, remember that you're injured, and don't make things worse.
posted by craven_morhead at 8:15 PM on December 10, 2006

i'd also add that based on the fact that you say you've been climbing a month, what you are probably doing is due to your being at least fairly strong in the general upper body, and as such have been able to progress past easier routes that use mostly straight forward positioning and don't require much actual stress on the hand, up to routes that put a great deal of stress on the fingers/hands. once you start hitting 5.10 or even some 5.9 (if you're outside drop those numbers a bit, but its cold so i'm assuming its gym climbing) its a whole different ballgame when it comes to what you are asking your fingers to do.

warming up is incredibly important.

also, it might be kind of a downer, but really at this stage in your climbing, you shouldn't be climbing anything crimpy that you cannot climb with an open hand (except for maybe a cruxy move or two). you can force your fingers to do things that are really horrible for them and power through some climbs that you really have no business being on from a safety stand point and you can really hurt yourself.

don't climb with your fingers like this. at least not for anymore than a couple quick moves here and there.

unless the visit is free, or you start feeling a lot worse without doing anything that should be making it worse, its probably not worth going to the doctor about. the doctor will just tell you to take it easy and at most maybe give you some tape and prescription advil.

and finally, for training purposes, always work on open hand strength, it will make you a much better climber overall. and work not just on closing the hand, but on opening it as wide as possible.

(i've worked in a climbing gym for about 4 years and see this all the time)
posted by teishu at 8:37 PM on December 10, 2006

A very hardcore climbing friend had various hand, wrist and elbow problems after a summer of heavy climbing. For most of the fall he was always popping advil and icing his joints every chance he got. At best, he was breaking even, keeping the inflammation from getting worse. He finally got so busy with classes that he had to cut his climbing and gym time. After that, his problems cleared up in no time.

You've got to give your body a chance to heal itself, or your weak links will never have a chance to improve.
posted by Good Brain at 9:06 PM on December 10, 2006

The chockstone article is good, and correct in that the purpose of the tape is really to reinforce the pulley and to limit activity of the finger while recuperating. It also simply feels better, if you are foolish enough to carry on while injured. More than likely this is because the tape prevents a good crimp on this finger, causing the other fingers to take most of the force. If you do tape, you should apply it just before climbing, and remove it promptly afterword in order not to inhibit blood flow to the injury.

I've had identical symptoms to those you describe and I'm not really clear on whether the injury is to the pulley, the tendon, or both. In any case, much of the advice on this thread is good, esp. warming up on easy climbs. I would also avoid taking cox-2 inhibitors (ibuprofen/naproxen) as a panacea, as they can inhibit healing and mask the pain which is your guide to recovery.
posted by Manjusri at 12:16 AM on December 11, 2006

I agree with Manjusri re: ibuprofen- pain is a warning, and you don't want to mask it. However, I've always wanted an actual reference regarding healing delays caused by ibuprofen. Anyone?

I also have to say I've been climbing for a few years now, and I can't tell you the number of times I've said exactly the title of your post.

The only useful answer I've ever really gotten is to heal it by laying off a bit for a while. Also I think I tend to have issues less when I plan some breaks in *before* I'm forced to take them.

(I also want to comment that the first time I ever wondered what I'd done to my joints was after trying a thumb on top of my fingers a la craven's suggestion-- did something nasty to the center of my palm as a result. Maybe I did it wrong, but, uh, YMMV.)
posted by nat at 12:57 AM on December 11, 2006

I am not a doctor, just a rock climbing instructor.

That being said I would say that the worst you did was strain your tendons in those fingers. You didnt tear a tendon because you wouldnt be able to move your finger if you did. Since you are in California Im doubting that your fingers are too cold.

The reason you have pain whether it is strained or not is because your hands are not very strong naturally. Since our fingers are pulled by long tendons connected to muscles in our forearms it isnt natural for us to usually need to strengthen them. Everything you normally do with your hands is grabbing supported by weight elsewhere.

The best thing you can do for it is take some ibuprofen and as soon as the pain subsides start a program with stuff like theraputty, hand strengtheners, even sqeezing a tennis ball can help strengthen your fingers. But make sure you are stretching your fingers out and not just towards your palms, hence pulling theraputty from the tips of your fingers so you can train your hands to relax at a more 'open' position. Do not forget to stretch your fingers, thumbs, wrists and forearms before and after climbing. If you search on the web you should be able to find some good tips on keeping your fingers in great climbing shape.

If you are climbing at a gym try to find a seasoned veteran or employee that knows the proper ways to position your hands on the hold. Like Teishu said above, there are ways you absolutely do not want to position your hands.

Just hurry and feel better and get back out there, every moment you arent climbing your fingers are returning to their natural lazy state.
posted by trishthedish at 5:10 AM on December 11, 2006

agree with Manjusri re: ibuprofen- pain is a warning, and you don't want to mask it. However, I've always wanted an actual reference regarding healing delays caused by ibuprofen. Anyone?

I have an overuse injury caused by another sport and was told by my sports doctor to take a pain reliever (in this case Aleve) every day for a week or two. The idea is not to mask pain but to reduce the inflamation. If you have tendinitis, your basic problem is that you are inflamed, and you want to reduce that first. Then you do the strengthening required to prevent a recurrence (essentially to keep the joint in place).

I also continued to work out while rehabbing and many other folks I know swear by it--as long as you take it easy and avoid actions that hurt. There are so, so many stories of people who hurt more after resting, mostly I think because you just let everything get tight. But I don't know the theory behind it, only that most people prefer to keep doing what they can. Obviously, I am not a doctor.
posted by dame at 6:10 AM on December 11, 2006

"'ve always wanted an actual reference regarding healing delays caused by ibuprofen. Anyone?"

I was first told about this about 5 years ago by a friend doing his post-med school internships. At the time I searched the net and didn't find much. Just now I did a brief search and found a couple links:

Some popular non-aspirin pain drugs may slow tendon healing
This one was a surprise to me because it says that COX-2 inhibitors (Celebrex, Vioxx, etc.) are worse than those which block both COX-1 and COX-2 (Ibu, naprox). I was under the impression that COX-2 inhibitors did not cause the adverse effects on healing.

NSAIDs: Why We Do Not Recommend Them
This one is a prolotherapy site, which, as I understand it is in the realm of "alternative" medicine. Prolo sites were the only people talking about this on the net 5 years ago too. However the article does cite studies which one could google further on.
posted by Manjusri at 3:25 PM on December 11, 2006

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