Finger injuries are the bane of many climbers at some point in their climbing journey. As a Registered Massage Therapist who climbs and treats climbers, I’ve had a fair share of people coming into the clinic with finger injuries.
I’ve also had some of my own woes. After having my own finger tweak recently, and having the process fresh in mind, here are a few thoughts on how to properly rehab and load your fingers to get you back to climbing as quickly as possible.
See a professional for proper diagnosis and support
Climbing injuries come in many forms including ligament or tendon damage, fractures or dislocations. The injury should be assessed by a professional who knows climbing injuries since your elbow and/or neck may also be involved. Remember that it’s always good to see a professional who understands climbing injuries, especially if you heard a pop or felt tearing in your finger, hand, or forearm.
Finger alignment matters
Mechanics are important in terms of how the load is transferred through your fingers. If you look at your finger with it straight and then bend it (finger flexion) so your finger touches your palm, it should track straight. Every person who has come in to my office with a finger injury always has their finger deviating to a side.
Rest and resistance
Once you have that finger tweak from climbing, or if you wake up the next day with a swollen and sore finger but you don’t remember hurting it during your last session, you need to rest from climbing.
Having done everything from dislocating my finger, to waking up with a swollen finger without feeling a snap or pop, I have learned the hard way that resting from climbing for at least a few days or maybe a week or two, depending on the severity of the injury, will let you heal and return to climbing at full strength, faster than trying to climb through it.
However, you do need to load the muscles, tendons and ligaments an appropriate amount so that they get blood flow and repair. Loading soft tissues, especially tendons with long standing pain aka tendinosis, to promote healing, is not a new idea. Dr. Julian Saunders is a climber, who treats climbers as an Osteopath, recommends this in his article on Dodgy Elbows. Another climbing resource that states loading soft tissue injuries within reasonable amounts is necessary for the healing process is Dave MacLeod, in the book Make or Break: Don’t let climbing injuries dictate your success.
Finger tracking with resistence
The challenge with adding resistance is that you need to load your finger in conjunction with fixing the tracking problem. As long as your finger continues to deviate, you will keep putting extra force on the surrounding ligaments and tendons. So, the first few exercises revolve around fixing your finger tracking and balancing out the intrinsic muscles of the hand. You can do them daily to encourage blood flow to the injured tissues as long as you aren’t more sore the next day.
If you find you are more sore the next day, back off on the reps or resistance level. There are a few tools you can use to do this. Some people will use elastic broccoli bands. I personally like Power Fingers, which we sell.
Power Fingers, extension and abduction
Power Fingers are great for a few reasons: there are five different levels of difficulty with various spots to put your fingers for straightening your fingers (extension) and spreading your fingers apart (abduction). I usually do these exercises in three sets of 20-30, but you can play around with the reps to see what feels the best for you. You can also use them for isolated finger flexion while working on getting your finger to track straight. Finger extension and abduction are where climbers generally have the most significant strength deficit.
Balancing your elbow with pronation and supination moves
Another exercise that is helpful involves moving between pronation (palm down)/supination (palm up) that will help balance out your elbow. You can use a stick clip, a frying pan, or a dowel for this exercise (three sets of 10/15).
Check out this video to see one elbow exercise and three exercises to correct finger tracking and imbalance that lead to poor finger tracking here!