Climber’s Elbow

Let’s say that you begin climbing regularly, be it at the Ritt Kellogg Climbing Gym, some other climbing gym, or outside. After a while, you start to notice a slight aching pain around your elbow. The pain fades quickly after climbing, but it’s beginning to get on your nerves. It appears after a few climbs, but you only notice it when you’re off the wall; the pain isn’t severe enough to penetrate the intense focus that comes with being in the climbing zone. 

I have experienced this feeling, and for a couple of months, I ignored it. However, its persistence led me to believe the pain was some sort of inflammation, so I began taking ibuprofen before each of my climbing sessions. This was a big mistake. I soon learned that the ache I was experiencing is called medial epicondylitis, otherwise known as “climber’s elbow,” and that the consequences of ignoring it are huge. 

I avoided diagnosing the pain through daily use of ibuprofen; in hindsight, this measure caused much more harm than good. Ibuprofen has been shown to reduce and even stop the healing and growth of tendons. My daily use of it caused the tendon in my middle finger to pop out and protrude whenever I bent my finger. My injury forced me to stop climbing for a month while it healed, since continuing to climb would surely have resulted in permanent damage. When I returned to climbing after this sojourn, my “climber’s elbow” returned almost instantly, and I decided to do some research to fix this annoying ache. 

Photos by Nick Penzel

Climbing involves much more pulling than pushing, which seems to be the cause of “climber’s elbow.” The muscles that activate your tendons while pulling become much stronger than the muscle group that pushes, creating an imbalance and constant soreness. Luckily, there is a very simple fix: strengthen the opposite muscles that you use when climbing up the wall. 

The most obvious exercise that accomplishes this is down-climbing each route you climb up, which balances out the push and pull muscle usage. My preferred method of mitigating “climber’s elbow,” however, is doing a reverse bicep curl. If you’re like me, and love that joyous sensation of jumping off the top of a successfully sent boulder problem instead of down-climbing, this may be the exercise for you. 

To begin the exercise, place the barbell by your face with a fully bent elbow, and then slowly lower it down until your arm is straight. At this point, you will feel the ache in your elbow dissolve away, as your tendons are stretched in the direction opposite of the way they usually are. I find that it helps to stay in this straight arm position for around 10 seconds in order to really achieve a deep stretch. Alternatively, if you don’t have a barbell, you can do push-ups, which also work quite effectively at strengthening your push muscles.

Listen to your body, and if it’s asking for help, don’t ignore it, especially those signals related to athletic activity. Consult your local doctor, physical therapist, or computer. And if you experience “climber’s elbow,” don’t feel down. The pain just means that you’re getting strong (maybe even too strong), and the simple solution is to balance out your newfound strength by building more strength in a different muscle with any of the exercises outlined above. Never forget to stretch, and climb on! 

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