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Climber’s Elbow: Everything You Need to Know

Jan 22, 2023

Climber’s elbow affects the muscles on the front of your forearm. It’s also referred to as medial epicondylitis. We grip and pull things when we climb, and this gets our forearm muscles to engage in work. All of your forearm muscles facing the front will attach to a bony bump on your elbow called your medial epicondyle.

If you've got pain on the inside of your elbow, one thing you can do is stretch it. Remember that climbing is a sport about movement, and movement happens in 3 planes of motion. To do all of these, you have to do it in three planes of motion. As a little refresher, please check the details below:

  • Sagittal Plane - a movement forward and backward
  • Coronal Plane - a movement from side to side
  • Transverse Plane - a movement of twisting or rotation

Step 1: Stretching

All you need to do is stretch your forearms in these three planes of motion. To start, you put your hands on a table or on the ground. In the sagittal plane, you would go forward and backward. As you rock forward, you could feel your forearms stretch. When I work with climbers, I would ask them to have the pits of their elbows point forward as much as they can.

Doing so will just give a better stretch. Normally, climbers will have internally rotated shoulders so they tend to do the opposite. Facing the pits of your elbows forward helps your forearms stretch a little bit more.

In the coronal plane, you would rock forward and go side to side. Then, you’d feel a different stretching sensation in your forearms. I would recommend you do that at least ten times. 

Lastly, in the transverse plane, you would draw circles. You would go five times in one direction and do the same thing in the opposite direction. 

This is how I would treat or start to treat medial epicondylitis or what's typically known as climber’s elbow

If you’re not finding pain relief with this exercise, then you might have a different injury that’s not climber’s elbow. In this case you definitely need to work with a physical therapist in person. Find someone in your area who works with rock climbers. It’s very important to do the right things for the right types of injuries.

Step 2: Strengthening

There are two types of contractions: 

  • Eccentric - engaging the bicep as it lengthens
  • Concentric - the shortening of the muscle

With tendinitis, oftentimes, you would stretch it first, but the second step is to start loading it so that your tissues can recover and regrow to be able to withstand the stress demands of climbing. One exercise you can do in the beginning stages is to curl up your wrist, place the weight in the curled wrist, and then slowly lower the weight down against gravity. This exercise demonstrates an eccentric contraction. Do this exercise with three sets of ten repetitions.

Normally when climbers have pain in their elbow, it's usually never just because of their forearm muscles. In most cases either their wrists don't move very well or their shoulders don't move very well. So in addition to treating the injured site, you should also work on the joint above and below it.

Hence, it's so important to find a physical therapist that you trust and if they have worked with climbers, that would be in your best interest. Also, if you're doing these exercises, and they feel good, you should do them regularly. But if it's not getting any better, then it's likely something else. That's when you need to seek professional guidance to help you through the injury. 

As a general rule that I live by is “if you listen to your body when it whispers, then you don't have to listen when it screams.”

So when you start feeling tendinitis a little bit, start doing activities or stretches that will help reduce it. But if you don't address anything about it and you keep climbing, it’s going to get worse over time. Then, it becomes much tougher to treat and it's going to cost you much more time, energy, and resources.

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