Climbing can be an exhilarating, full-body workout, especially if performed outside on natural rocks. Yet climbing presents a number of hazards, with proper technique and safety equipment needed to prevent potential injury. Not surprisingly, climbers often complain of finger pain because of the intense stress placed on their hands while scaling a rock wall.
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Most climbing finger pain stems from injuring the annular flexor pulleys of the fingers, most notably the pulleys of the middle and ring fingers. Small bands of tissue, the annular flexor pulleys hold finger tendons in place, allowing the finger joints to bend. When the pulleys become stressed or fatigued, the tendons pull away from the bone, causing pain and hindering proper finger movement.
Doctors categorize pulley injuries as Grade I, Grade II or Grade III. A Grade I injury is a sprain of the pulley and surrounding ligaments, resulting in pain when squeezing the hand. In a Grade II injury, the pulley suffers a partial rupture, triggering pain while squeezing and making it difficult to extend the finger. The most severe, Grade III injuries feature a complete rupture of the pulley. Climbers experiencing a Grade III pulley injury might hear a loud “pop” or “crack” and notice bruising and swelling along with the customary pain.
For a Grade I injury, taping the fingers can help support the tendons when climbing, while performing hand exercises with TheraPutty can strengthen the fingers. Hand baths of cold water followed by warm water can also help increase blood flow to the injured area, as will gentle massage. Hand exercises and contrasting baths and massage will also treat a Grade II injury, although all climbing should be halted until the pain comes under control. For a Grade III injury, immediately stop climbing and ice the injured finger for 15 minutes at a time for the next two days. Keep the hand elevated to help reduce swelling. Rest the injury as much as possible the first few weeks, performing only light exercise and gentle massage. Recovering from a Grade III injury requires patience. Always stop any rehab if you experience pain. The entire healing process could take between eight and 12 weeks.
Knuckle stress fractures and collateral ligament injuries may also cause finger pain for climbers. Like pulley injuries, knuckle stress fractures occur due to poor technique or simply climbing too much. The knuckle will swell and cause severe pain. Rest remains the best cure for a stress fracture. Halt all climbing activities for at least a month or until the swelling and pain subside.