I have a buddy who wants me to try climbing walls at his gym. I'm really tempted but I had a rotator cuff injury several years ago. Is it safe for me to try this activity?
Arm injuries are common in sport climbing, especially injuries of the shoulder. The rotator cuff is a prime area for tendon damage and impingement (pinching) syndrome.
Some of the stresses on the shoulders and arms depend on the angle and/or incline of the climbing wall. Ease with which handholds and footholds can be reached is another potential factor.
Coordinated movements of the shoulder are needed for this sport. The rotator cuff must function with just the right amount of muscle contraction and cocontraction.Cocontraction refers to muscles on the opposite sides of the joint contracting at the same time.
Climbing techniques require a lot of body pull-up motions. The shoulder muscles must be strong enough to lift the entire body against gravity.
The best way to find out if your shoulder is stable enough for climbing activities is to have the muscles tested. Physical therapists offer isokinetic testing (e.g., Cybex system) to evaluate muscle strength under load.
Any weakness or imbalance will be revealed with this type of testing. It's possible a strength training program could prepare you for this vigorous sport. One study comparing shoulder muscle strength of climbers versus nonclimbers found overall shoulder strength much greater among climbers. Shoulder extensors were twice as strong as the flexors.
Training toward this ratio may help prepare you and protect you once you get started. Start with the easiest climbing walls first. Gradually increase the speed and level of difficulty based on the results of your muscle testing and endurance during the activity. If there is any question or doubt about your ability or preparation for this actvity, an evaluation with an orthopedic surgeon might be a good idea first before participating in this actvity.
Emmy K. L. Wong, PT, MSc, and Gabriel Y. F. NG, PT, PhD. Isokinetic Work Profile of Shoulder Flexors and Extensors in Sports Climbers and Nonclimbers. In Journal of Orthopaedic & Sports Physical Therapy. September 2008.Vol.38. No. 9. Pp.572-577.
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