We’ve all heard it: “Climbing is a dangerous sport.” Of course we should always exercise caution and adhere to the best safety practices, but we can be injured even when we do everything right. Your muscles, tendons, ligaments, and nerves are all at risk for chronic breakdown and injury from overuse. Injuries and pain can limit your enjoyment of our great sport and even shorten your athletic or recreational career. Bottom line, climbing is an athletic activity and you need to treat yourself like an athlete.
One of the keys for remaining injury free is to boost your recovery between gym sessions. While the standbys are icing, rest and foam rollers for enhanced recovery, the reality is that most of us need more than that. Question is, which other therapies are worth the time, money and energy?
For Sustained Performance
Massage therapy is the go-to for many athletes for recovery, stress reduction and enhanced performance. Does massage actually work? Research is contradictory. A massage can reduce blood pressure and stress while increasing the perception of recovery. It can also temporarily increase flexibility. Yet a 2008 report in the North American Journal of Sports Physical Therapy concluded that massage has generally failed to show positive effects on sports performance and physiological parameters related to muscle soreness. Massage has also not been proven to play a significant role in rehabilitation of sports injuries. So … it feels good, but maybe not worth the money if recovery is the objective.
Chiropractic therapy is supposed to restore normal neology and biomechanics of the spinal and extremity joints. On the surface, it’s easy to see how athletes could benefit from adjustments: peak performance can only be achieved with optimal mobility and nerve function. Opponents of the practice point out that such adjustments could cause abnormal spinal mechanics and muscle activation, thereby disrupting the intricate chain of coordinated movements necessary for most sports, especially climbing. Numerous studies postulate the benefits of chiropractic care for sports performance, but research is insufficient to convincingly support the claims. Most studies fail to demonstrate statistical differences between athletes who have undergone chiropractic treatment and those who have not. The studies that do demonstrate positive effects from adjustments are small, and the authors can only conclude that a possible association exists. A 2010 review of chiropractic treatment and the enhancement of sport performance in The Journal of the Canadian Chiropractic Association concluded that it would be more accurate for chiropractors to say that their techniques “may” indirectly affect performance. Chiropractic therapy feels good, but might not be the best for optimal recovery.
Cryotherapy is the latest trend in sports recovery. The treatment places you in a specialized chamber for two to four minutes at temperatures below -148 degrees. Another form of cryotherapy uses a cold wand to target problem areas. Cryotherapy is thought to improve mental and physical health, although many of the possible benefits remain unproven. Preliminary studies suggest cryotherapy can reduce pain and inflammation, promote tissue repair, increase metabolism, improve mental states, treat migraines, and even prevent an array of chronic diseases. A 2017 report in the International Journal of Sports Medicine concluded that cryotherapy reduced muscle pain 80 percent of the time. Cryotherapy was also found to decrease whole-body inflammation and lower systemic markers for muscle-cell damage. Further research is needed to find the optimal duration and frequency of cryotherapy, but this is a therapy to keep an eye on.
Cupping is thousands of years old, used throughout Asia to treat pain and other ailments. Traditionally for this treatment, a glass cup is heated to create suction and placed on the skin. More commonly, the cups are attached to a pump to create the suction. The cups are said to lift connective tissue, loosen adhesions, increase blood flow, and drain fluids and toxins.
The 2018 Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine reviewed the results of cupping on 500 patients and concluded that no recommendation could be made for or against the technique. Still, it’s hard to ignore a therapeutic technique that has such deep historic roots
For Injury-Rehabilitation Performance
Dry Needling involves using a thin filiform needle to penetrate the skin and access soft tissues. It was first proposed in the 1940s based on Western medical practices, and differs from acupuncture in style and philosophy. Dry needling is rooted in modern neuromuscular science and pain patterns.
Most studies reviewing dry needling as therapeutic technique surmise that it is effective for reducing pain and may improve balance and strength. The 2010 edition of Acupuncture in Medicine: Journal of the British Medical Acupuncture Society concluded that dry needling may help maintain rotator-cuff mobility and reduce the potential for injury, a salient point for climbers given our propensity for shoulder injuries.
Extracorporeal shockwave therapy is a relatively new technology that delivers shockwaves into soft tissues via a cylindrical handheld machine. The shock waves may cause microtrauma in deep tissue and stimulate cellular repair of connective tissue. The treatment also may stimulate the production of new blood vessels, increase nutrient delivery and promote dissolution of calcium deposits formed by chronic injury. The therapy hyperstimulates the nerves that send pain signals to the brain, diminishing nerve activity and reducing pain. Over longer periods of continued treatment, shockwave therapy may activate a “reset” button to diminish pain perception and treat chronic tendinopathies. A 2014 study in the Annals of Internal Medicine suggested that it is an underutilized therapy for shoulder conditions, which are historically difficult to treat.
Low-level laser therapy is the application of light at red or near infrared wavelengths to targeted tissues. The technique may reduce pain and inflammation as well as augment tissue repair and regeneration of damaged tissues. Light therapy has been used to treat numerous ailments, including arthritis, tendinopathies, and nerve-related conditions such as carpal tunnel. Lasers in Medical Science, a 2018 study by Fabio Lanferdini, found that laser therapy could improve VO2 kinetics and increase time to exhaustion. This may be of particular interest to lead or multipitch climbers. Proponents recommended three to four sessions per week to increase cellular activity and optimize physiological conditions. Given that a high frequency of treatment is needed, this therapy may be best reserved for specific injuries rather than chronic fatigue or pain.
Acupuncture is thousands of years old, originating within Chinese medicine and becoming popular worldwide. Acupuncture is used to treat a wide array of conditions and diseases as well as psychological states. The technique can supposedly aid in pain perception and enhance physical performance, strength, aerobic conditioning, and flexibility. A study in 2017 in the Journal of Complementary and Integrative Medicine demonstrated that acupuncture may even be used to reduce anxiety prior to competition. Anxiety reduction would be of particular use for athletes that are struggling to keep a cool head prior to an important competition.
E-stem or “Electrical stimulation” is the application of low-level electrical frequencies to targeted muscle groups. This technique stimulates muscle contractions of low intensity and short duration, which is similar to what the athlete would do during active-recovery exercise. However, most studies do not present convincing evidence for E-Stem’s effectiveness. A 2014 report in the International Journal of Sports Physiology and Performance compared electrical stimulation to active and passive recovery interventions. The report concluded that electrical stimulation was less effective than active recovery and comparable to passive recovery. Instead of throwing money at the situation, it might be better to spend 10 extra minutes at the end of a training session doing a cool down.