Shoulder Injuries in Climbing

As climbers our shoulders come second only to our hands in importance. If our shoulder joints and muscles aren’t functioning as they should, it can not only take its toll on the shoulder itself, but also have a wider spread effect on our arms, hands and surprisingly even the core and legs. On the other hand when our shoulders are healthy and happy it improves almost all other aspects of climbing. 

It makes sense when we consider the incredible forces that we put through our shoulders when climbing, why most climbers have experienced some kind of shoulder niggle or pain. Honestly, shoulder injuries are the most common complaint we treat at Climbit Physio. 

Why does this happen? 

The shoulder joint has more range of movement than any other joint in the human body. To allow this movement the joint is incredibly shallow and relies on our muscles to hold it in place and keep it stable. Most other joints in our body are more reliant on ligaments for this stability. 

The muscle whose job it is to keep the shoulder happy is the famous Rotator Cuff. The Rotator Cuff’s main job is to keep the head of the humerus (arm bone) in its socket while we move our arm around. If we think about some of the positions we put our shoulders in when climbing, then it makes a lot of sense to say that as climbers these stabilizing muscles are vitally important. It also explains why we have so much grief with these pesky joints. So what are the main shoulder injuries we see? 

  1. Rotator Cuff Tendinopathy – Tendinopathy essentially just means inflammation of the tendon in one or more of the Rotator Cuff tendons. Instead of an acute event, this tends to be a slow onset of pain over a number of weeks that slowly worsens over time. They tend to be more sore in the morning or when first warming up for a climb but feel pretty good during the session itself.
  2. Rotator Cuff Tear – You can identify this injury with an acute event of pain in the shoulder combined with consistently painful range of movement. This tends to happen when the shoulder is shock loaded in an awkward position therefore overloading one of the Rotator Cuff Muscles.
  3. Bursitis or Impingement – We call this one “Climber’s Shoulder”. It presents with a persistent niggle or ache at the front of the shoulder, with pain through the middle of our range of movement, but fairly comfortable at the top and the bottom of the movement. The cause of this impingement tends to be either; muscle imbalance between our pulling and pushing muscles or Irregular movement of the shoulder joint due to muscle weakness.
  4. Postural Shoulder – This one presents very similar to impingement however the underlying cause of the shoulder pain is postural muscle imbalance around the shoulder. It is very common in climbing to get very strong and tight in our pulling down muscles (Internal Rotators), which pull the shoulder forward and down over time. If we then have to sit at a desk for work or spend a significant amount of time sitting, the muscles through the front shoulder get very tight and add to the rounding of the shoulder. Essentially this puts the shoulder in a position where it can’t move the way it wants to and pain follows. 

These are the most common shoulder concerns seen by the team at Climbit Physio. Although it does take time and effort to fully recover from these injuries, the best part is most of the rehabilitation is done on the climbing wall. In fact in most cases you need to keep climbing (with some modifications) to ensure the shoulder heals to its full strength. 

Here are some of the best stretches and exercises we recommend as Prehab for your shoulders. You can do these on a regular basis to keep your shoulders healthy and happy. They are also great at reducing any little niggles you might be feeling after your climbing session. If you get any pain while doing any of these exercises consult a medical professional before continuing.

  1. Pec Stretch on Foam Roller: for 5 – 10 mins after each session. Most things we do in life pull us forward (like sitting at a desk for 8 hours a day) and this is trying to counteract by pushing the muscles backwards. If your hands get tingly, you can bring them down lower and give them a rest.
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2. Latissimus Dorsi Stretch: 3 x 30 seconds on each side

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3. Static Hold External Rotation: 3 x 45 seconds in both positions (should be hard)

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4. Shoulder Press: 3 x 10 with a weight that is appropriate for you.

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5. Side Plank with KettleBell: 3 x 30 seconds hold each side. These are great for loading up the rotator cuff.

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We hope you found this helpful! If you have any other questions please don’t hesitate to Contact Us.

The Climbit Physio Team

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