Climbing Finger Injuries: What Now?
Updated: Sep 7, 2022
So you injured your finger climbing? Let me guess…
There was a fresh set on the 45. You rushed your warm up and only climbed a couple V1s. You didn’t stretch. You hopped on the brand new climbs, anxious to see how strong you’ve gotten since the last set. You got two tries in on the new V6. You were pulling hard on the left hand. And before you realized what happened: “Pop!”
It was your third and final day of the trip. Your skin, hands, feet, hell, everything was tired but you’re determined to make the most of the last day. You had been projecting this one problem all trip. You were getting close. You decided to hop on for one last burn at the end of the day. You pulled through the crux. You knew there were only a couple of moves left. You were tired. And before you realized what happened: “Pop!”
Pulley Injuries – The Most Common Climbing Injury
Finger injuries, specifically pulley injuries, are the most common injuries we see in climbing. In fact, upwards of all 80% of all pulley injuries are from rock climbing. You can walk up to pretty much any veteran climber in the gym or at the crag and ask them, “Have you ever had a finger injury?” Almost all of them will sigh, hold up a hand, and point to a finger.
So are you one of the people I described above? Take a deep breath and try not to catastrophize (envision the end of your climbing career) because I’m right there with you.
Three weeks ago I injured my left ring finger while climbing. It’s likely a Grade III tear (bad partial or full rupture of the A2 pulley). I had gone hiking that morning then went into the gym for some training in the evening. I warmed up, but not enough. I was tired.
After a couple of goes on a hard boulder, I hopped on for one last pull. I was cranking down hard on a sharp, left-hand, side-pull crimper when, before I knew what happened… “Pop!” The loudest pop I had ever heard exploded from my hand. There was no burst of pain, no bright light. Just a, “Pop!” I knew what had happened. I went into shock. It felt like my life was over.
Six months. I know the drill. Six months of no climbing while I recover. Right? Not exactly.
So although I trained for months and was feeling my strongest and although pristine temps were rolling in, I stopped climbing and began waiting for this thing to heal. So what is a climber to do?
Hit the books. You can find articles all over the internet containing info about pulley injuries but no one tells you what you’re about to go through. That’s why I’m here. I wanted to learn as much about my injury as possible and I’m here to share what I’ve learned with you.
Here's what I learned about healing a pully injury:
Your climbing career is not over. You don’t need a new hobby. You’re not out for 6 months. We hear all too often that a finger injury = 6 months no climbing. Sometimes that’s true! But most times? It’s not. You would only need to take 6 months off for surgery recovery and if you need surgery to repair your finger, you’ll know it. We are talking about your standard pop and scare here.
Stop climbing. You may not have to take 6 months off, but you’re definitely going to have to take at least a four-week break. You hurt your body and you have to let it heal. If you rush this process, you’re going to be worse off in the long run. At the very least, don’t climb until you’ve gone through steps 3-4.
Check your hand. You probably did this 20 times after you popped off the wall but if not, take a look at it now. Is it swollen? Ice it. Does it seem pretty normal? Ice it. Are you bowstringing? Ice it. In that first couple of days, you’re going to want to ice until the swelling goes down.
Research. Ask around the gym, get online, make some calls. I’m not a doctor and you probably aren’t either, so you’re going to have to find a real person who can get you back on the wall. Look for a hand specialist who is familiar with the stressors of climbing. This could be a Physical Therapist, a Plastic Surgeon, or maybe an Orthopedic Hand Surgeon. This is probably the toughest step. When I hurt my middle finger a couple of years ago, I went to an Occupational Therapist who was also a Hand Specialist to try and get some insight on my injury. As smart and well-intentioned as the specialist was, they just did not understand the type of stress climbing puts on the hand. It’s difficult to explain to a non-climber why you want to absolutely destroy your body. So the doctor you choose doesn’t have to be a climber per-say (although it’s ideal), but they do have to be familiar with climbing in order to understand what you are looking for. You are not looking to be able to type on a keyboard again. You are looking to be able to do 2 finger, pinkys-only front levers. And you should not have to explain yourself as to why. So how do you find a doctor that’s right for you?
Ask around the gym. As I said before, climbers go through this all the time. Ask the staff at your local gym if they have any recommendations for hand specialists. If they don’t, ask if any of the regulars have had finger problems. Find them and ask who they saw.
Get online. I found one of the best Hand Specialists I’ve ever seen by Googling for about an hour. He had written, “In my spare time, I like to rock climb,” in the bio on his website so I gave him a call.
Make some calls. Don’t be afraid to ask for what you need. Send emails to prospective doctors and try to set up a preliminary phone consultation to see if they are a good fit for you. You’ll know fairly quickly if they are familiar with climbing or are just trying to get you in the door. You don’t have to pay a $100 co-pay just to find out the doctor isn’t a good fit for you.
Once you have a plan, stick to it. Your doctor will tell you how long it will be until you can climb again. They will tell you what exercises you can and can’t do. They will tell you what you need to do to promote blood flow to the injury. Do these things, nothing less, nothing more. The last thing you want to do is further aggravate the pulley wind up climbing with stacked fingers for the rest of your life. This means you might need to adjust your workout.
Cardio and core. The two C’s! You won’t be able to lift or climb for at least a month so it’s an excellent time to cross train. During this time I suggest improving cardio and core strength. You will come back to climbing feeling healthy and stronger than you think. Do not use your finger injury as a “break,” use it for C&C.
Stay sane. I lied. This is the most challenging part. Me? I still go on climbing trips only I don’t climb, I just snap photos. I’ve also started hiking a lot more often and even bought a new bike. In the grand scheme, your injury isn’t as bad as it seems and neither is mine. While climbing may almost be my whole life, I’ve taken this opportunity to do some grooming around the parts of my life that have been left untended, and I suggest you do the same.
Climbers come back stronger from finger injuries all the time. Let us know your story in the comments!