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Doctor’s Orders: Keep Your Fingers Happy and Healthy

Rock climbing is by nature tough on the fingers. But climbers themselves can do a lot to minimize their risk of injury.

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The average climber thinks less about finger health than the United States government thinks about health in general, which is saying something. Only when there is a “pop” do we pay attention, at which point the sky is falling… unless you are mid-send, in which case you probably pretend for a few more minutes that your finger is fine. (One of my patients broke two fingers in a crack at Indian Creek purely by pulling too hard, but since he only had 30 feet of tight finger crack to go for his best crack onsight he opted to suck it up and march on! Well done, ol’ chap.)

Pay your digits a little attention, however, and your chance of acute or chronic injury is vastly reduced. Here are a few tips to keep your pullers pulling.

1. Regularly stretch your fingers.

Twist each joint like a corkscrew and bend it sideways at the same time. It’s not rocket surgery—if you can feel the joint stretching, the joint is being stretched. Hold for 30 seconds and repeat a few times.

2. Don’t warm up on pockets.

Instead, try slamming your head in a car door. Although our fingers can work independently they are not designed to do so under high loads. First, warm up using all the fingers in unison (no splitting of fingers; this includes dropping the little finger off when opening-handing with the first three fingers). Warming up the muscles and connective tissues that move and stabilize each finger will, by virtue of improved elasticity, reduce the chance of injury when you do start grabbing holds or pockets with just a finger or two, or three.

3. Adjust how you grab pockets.

When you pull as hard as you canon pockets you tend to curl the unloaded fingers hard to the palm in an attempt to generate more force (which it probably does). The harder you pull the neighboring fingers, particularly if you are not accustomed to it, the greater the chance of injury to the small muscles in your palm, namely the lumbrical and interosseous muscles, and/or tearing around the musculotendonous junction in the mid forearm. You can do two things to mitigate the risk of this injury. 1) Don’t forcefully curl your fingers into your palm, but leave them in a more relaxed position. 2) Stretch the connective tissues that come under tension when you split your fingers. Using a hang board (feet on the ground), load each finger separately while drawing the other fingers to your palm. Hold for 20 seconds and repeat a few times for each finger or the combination of fingers that you commonly use. BE CAREFUL!

Read this: The Proven Way to Improve Finger Strength.

4. Training your fingers is a means of injury prevention.

Systematic and progressive training is the best preventative for finger injuries of all kinds, including pulley ruptures and stress fractures. That said, expect them—sometimes things just don’t go according to plan. How you manage your hurts is the key to recovery.

5. If you tweak something, do your homework.

Understanding what you have injured is paramount if you are to have any chance of recovering while continuing to climb or train. Whole-hearted rest is fine if there is something else lighting your fire—a new romantic partner, the start of ski season, or that new social-media platform BrainFart—but typically it’s not necessary. A few days of downtime are prudent, but since many tweaks settle very quickly, it’s good to start rehabbing and climbing lightly relatively soon. If the pain is still concerning after a few days, it might not be a tweak, in which case you should check in with a climbing-injury specialist.

Read this: Flappers, Bruises, Shredded Skin? Pro climber Chris Shulte’s advice for skin care