Peak district rocks

Dealing with climbing finger injuries

Our bodies are not designed for climbing, we have to work very hard to achieve goals that many creatures will climb with no effort at all. If we could reduce our size to an inch and grow filaments on our hands that form molecular bonds with the rock (like the Gecko) we would not have to train so hard. Unfortunately this is not going to happen, we will have to train hard and with hard training injuries can happen. These can be strained muscles, damaged and broken tendons, broken bones (normally from falling, not training), ripped ligaments and cracked skin.

One of the most common injuries that climbers suffer from is tendon damage. This can be due to a muscle imbalance pulling the tendons in directions they should not be pulled, tendon sheath damage or damage to the tendon itself. The injury can be acute or chronic, chronic means that the injury has happened over a long period of time and acute happens instantly.

Resting from rock climbing

If the injury is acute, you should seek medical advice. If you are plagued by small injuries to your tendons there are a couple of things you can do.


This is the most important action you can take, but not one we would like to. Our bodies repair themselves when at rest, we can help this by taking part in other non-climbing sports such as swimming or running as this will help improve blood flow to the damaged area. Finger tendons recieve a small amount of blood, which is one of the reasons why tendons can take a long time to repair.

Still climbing?

It may be possible to keep climbng but this must not cause any pain during and after the session. Pain is the bodies way of of telling us not to do something, if it is hurting dont climb. You should try climbing on large holds and avoid crimps, I have had a tedon heal whilst still managing to climb longer sport routes.

Non-steroidal Anti Inflammatory Drugs

Many climbers will use drugs such as Asprin and Ibuprofen to reduce pain and swelling. These are both powerfull drugs and should not be under estimated. Always read the label. They work by stopping an enzyme called Cylooxygenase (COX), this enzyme makes prostaglandins which cause swelling and increase our senstivity to pain. By inhibiting COX less prostaglandins are made, therfore reducing swelling and pain.

Long term use of these drugs can cause the reduction in the body’s healing process ,so they should not be taken for more than a week unless your doctor has prescribed them for you.

As they reduce pain sensitivity, you should not climb on pain killers. You will be unable to tell if you are further damaging tendons. There is some evidence that these drugs can reduce post exercise muscle soreness in the quadriceps muscles (Hassen et al 1993) but the evidence is limited and not related to climbing.

Distilled Witch Hazel

I was recommended this after a small tear to a pulley tendon in my ring finger. This injury was taking a long time to heal so I visited an Osteopath. She recommeded that I soak a small bandage in in Which Hazel and leave it on overnight. Which Hazel helps reduce swelling and brusing to the area and unlike anti inflammatory drugs, there are no side effects of long term use. This can be bought over the counter at any pharmacy - remember to read the label.

Ice treament

Another treatment designed to reduce the swelling of the damaged area. This treatment works well but also reduces the blood flow to the area. Remember that blood is needed to carry all the nutrients needed in repairing the injury. This is why ice treatment is not recommended for a prolonged period of time. You should only need to ice an injury for a week, any longer than this might slow the recovery time. If the area is still swollen after this period you should consult your doctor as the injury could be worse than you thought. Many people now use 'Hot and cold treatment'. This involves icing the area then warming the injury to increase blood flow. I find that pulley tendons can be given 'hot' treatment by holding a cup of tea.

Cold Water therapy

This was introduced by Dave Macleod on his blog. He suggested that placing the injury in a bowl of cold water. The theory is that cool water can increase the blood flow to an area (evident by the skin turning red) and therefore help the healing process. Now many climbers swear by this and I too have found that it works well. Scottish water must be colder than my tap water as I find I need to add a couple of ice cubes to get the required cold/cool temperature. The skin should turn red with the increase perfusion to the area. If you notice the hand turning white, the water is too cold and the body is starting to close the capillaries in the hand.


Glucosamine is a naturally occurring substance used in cartilage. It is thought to enhance the body’s natural repair process and is becoming a very popular form of self-treatment. Glucosamine has virtually no side effects but because it is sold as a dietary supplement it is not regulated in the same way as many drugs. The product’s efficacy and purity are open to question. Some studies have found it to be more effective than ibuprofen for the management of osteoarthrosis (Vaz 1982) but the jury is out on its use in sports medicine.

Cross fibre massage

This is a great way of increasing blood flow to the area. This is simply using your fingers to gently massage the area. You should try massaging in all directions so the fibres are rubbed along their axis as well as across. There should be no pain whilst performing this, or after the massage. I have a Boots massage pen that vibrates, they are sold at infra-sound devices, but I don’t think this helps. These are a great way to increase the blood flow; I can feel my whole hand pulsating after a 10 minute session with the infra-sound pen.

References and links

Hassen, S M. 1993. Effect of ibuprofen use on muslce soreness, damage and performance: A preliminary investigation. Med Sci Sports Exerc 25:9-17

Vaz, A L. 1982. Double-blind clinical evaluation of the relative efficacy of ibuprofen and glucosamine sulphate in the management of osteoarthrosis of the knee in out-patients. Curr Med Res Opin 8:145-149

ThomasBond Physio, a blog that goes into further details about climbing injuries.


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