Climbers are gutsy. They’re committed to their sport, test the limits, and work through their adrenaline. But unfortunately, pushing yourself to your limits can cause issues if you’re not considering your overall health. Rotator cuff injuries are one of the most common injuries among climbers. We’re going to dive into what a rotator cuff injury is, how these injuries occur during climbing, and how you can prevent them in the future!
What is a Rotator Cuff Injury?
Rotator cuff injuries are a blanket term for several injuries within the rotator cuff group of muscles and tendons around your shoulder joint. According to the Mayo Clinic, “Rotator cuff injuries are common and increase with age. These may occur earlier in people who have jobs that require repeatedly performing overhead motions. The rotator cuff is a group of muscles and tendons that surround the shoulder joint, keeping the head of your upper arm bone firmly within the shallow socket of the shoulder. A rotator cuff injury can cause a dull ache in the shoulder, which often worsens with use of the arm away from the body.”
SSM Health outlines different types of rotator cuff injuries:
Tendinitis is inflammation of the tendons surrounding your rotator cuff. This is usually caused by overuse and repetitive motions.
Bursitis is the inflammation of the bursa in the shoulder. The bursa is between the acromion, deltoid muscle, and rotator cuff.
Tendon Strain or Tear
According to Johns Hopkins, “Tendonitis of your shoulder is an inflammation of your rotator cuff or biceps tendon. Your rotator cuff consists of the muscles and tendons in your shoulder. They connect your upper arm bone to your shoulder blade.”
Impingement is caused by excessive friction and/or squeezing of the rotator cuff and shoulder blade. Over time if left untreated, it can lead to a torn rotator cuff. Learn more about different types of shoulder impingement on our condition page here.
What Causes Rotator Cuff Injuries in Rock Climbing?
We will briefly elaborate on three main contributors to rotator cuff injuries while rock climbing.
1. Overhead Reach and Motion
In rock climbing, there is a lot of overhead reach paired with a pulling motion. Reach isn’t always directly above the head either- it can be off to the side or in funky positions! Proper overhead technique (shared later in this post!) is a way that you can prevent injury- but, unfortunately to some, avoiding overuse is one of the best ways to prevent injury from consistent overhead reach (embrace your rest days!).
2. Extreme Pressure While in End Ranges of Motion
As your muscles reach their end ranges of motion, it becomes increasingly difficult to apply strength. Think of a ballerina who is constantly practicing jumps on her toes. In some jumps, when standing on her toes and pushing off in that position, she applies strength to that end range of motion with extended flexion of the feet and engaged muscles in the legs. For a climber, this could be a sudden burst of motion when grabbing a hold with their arm’s end range of motion. This can increase the risk of muscle strain and overuse.
3. Imbalanced Muscles
Rock climbing engages many muscles, and it’s considered a full-body workout! Other repetitive sports can be more susceptible to muscle imbalance than climbing, but it is something to be aware of! Muscle imbalance can lead to improper and limited mobility, potential pain, and instability.
What are the Symptoms of a Rotator Cuff Injury that Rock Climbers Will Notice?
Rock climbers who are questioning if they have a rotator cuff injury may experience several symptoms:
- Sharp aches and pains on the top of the shoulders and/or upper arms
- Pain when lifting your arm above your head
- Deep and dull aches in your shoulder
- Unusual fatigue or weakness in the arms
- Difficulty reaching behind your back
How Can You Prevent Rotator Cuff Injuries While Rock Climbing?
We suggest several ways to prevent rotator cuff injuries while rock climbing.
Avoid Stress While Climbing
To avoid rotator cuff stress while climbing, consider implementing these adjustments while on the wall:
- Engage your shoulder blades when hanging
- Look for intermediate footholds and step higher when possible to help avoid extreme pressure in your end ranges of motion
- Maintain an upright posture when possible.
Take a Class!
Local instructors can help you learn proper technique and form while also providing feedback on your tendencies. If you live in Boise, Idaho, The Commons Climbing Gym offers private lessons where the focus can be on helping you learn proper safety, technique, and form.
Add Supplemental Training and Mobility Exercises*
Improve-climbing.com has a great list of exercises that help to improve your mobility and balance out muscles to improve your posture. Climbing.com also has a great list of supplemental exercises that can help you cross-train with your regular climbing routine. They include cardio, strength training, and active rest day ideas.
In summary, we’ve explained what a rotator cuff injury is, how they occur among climbers, common symptoms, and how they can be prevented. If you’re experiencing any common symptoms contact Idaho Sports Medicine Institute today to find out how we can help you on your road to recovery.
*Please always consult your physician before beginning any exercise program. This general information is not intended to diagnose any medical condition or to replace your healthcare professional. Consult with your healthcare professional to design an appropriate exercise prescription. If you experience any pain or difficulty with these exercises, stop and consult your healthcare provider.