Have you ever climbed so much that you felt your elbow start to hurt? If so, you’re not alone at all. “Climbers elbow” is a common complaint among frequent climbers, just like tennis elbow or golf elbow is a frequent complaint amongst those sports.
If you feel pain in your elbow, either on the inside or the outside related to climbing and are interested in knowing how to minimize your pain and help your elbow heal, this is the article for you. We will also cover how to prevent climbers elbow in the first place, or at least ways to minimize your risk of developing climbers elbow.
What is Climbers Elbow?
Climbers elbow is a form of tendonitis. This means that it is a swelling or inflammation of the tendons. Tendons are the strands that attach your muscles together and help your muscles perform at their highest ability.
Climbers elbow is characterized by a dull pain originating from your elbow and spreading down towards your wrist and hand. Many climbers will experience this pain at some point in their climbing career. Climbers elbow is a very common injury among climbers and is simply an overuse injury.
Although many people consider climbers elbow, tennis elbow, and golf elbow to be the same thing, they aren’t all the same. Tennis elbow is a strain on the tendons on the outside of the elbow. Climbers elbow and golf elbow are strains on the tendons on the inside of the elbow. All three are caused by overuse and are healed with time and rest.
What Causes Climbers Elbow?
Climbers elbow is caused by overuse of the tendons in your arm while climbing. It is often associated with an imbalance between the tendons used to open your fingers and the tendons used to close your fingers, which is why many climbers recommend using antagonist training exercises to keep all your muscles and tendons strong.
What Causes Tendonitis when Climbing?
One of the main reasons that tendonitis in the elbow is so common amongst climbers is that climbing excessively can put a large amount of strain on very few tendons and muscles in your arms. This can lead to a wearing down of the tendons that are used and a deterioration of the tendons that are not used.
Tendonitis is an inflammation of the tendons that can come from simple overuse. Climbing too much is a thing and can cause you to develop tendonitis.
Climbers are particularly prone to tendonitis due to the imbalance in the strength in the tendons in your arms. This imbalance, meaning that one of your tendons is really strong while another right next to it is really weak, can lead to the weaker tendon wearing down much faster. It is important to take care of your whole body when you work out, not just some of your body.
Can You Climb with Climbers Elbow?
So the smart answer is no, but the biological answer is yes. Tendonitis will heal on its own if you give it long enough to rest and recuperate, but it is just an inflammation of the tendons. That means that a common anti-inflammatory drug, such as aspirin, Advil, or ibuprofen, will help minimize the pain that you feel when you have climbers elbow.
That being said, you should not climb if you have climbers elbow. This will slow the healing process of your elbow and just elongate the amount of time that you won’t be able to climb at your full strength. As much as it can suck, giving yourself time off to properly heal will help you get back to climbing sooner than if you try to push it and climb on an injured elbow.
How Do You Prevent Climbers Elbow?
The best way to prevent climbers elbow is to strengthen all of the tendons in your arms. This will prevent you from developing an imbalance between the tendons and muscles that pull and grip as compared to the tendons and muscles that push and release. Many climbers like to train using antagonist training practices to help mitigate this problem.
Antagonist training involves specific movements that oppose the movements done in climbing. For example, in climbing, you often pull with your arms, so that antagonistic workout for that would be an exercise like a push-up, or something that engages the pushing muscles and tendons. There are specific antagonistic training exercises that can be done for all muscle, and if you’re really interested in this, you should check out our article on antagonistic climbing training.
Another way to prevent the development of climbers elbow is to get in a good routine of stretching before and after you climb. When you properly warm up your body and stretch, you minimize the risk that the repeated motions of climbing will have on your body. Stretching after you finish climbing is also a great way to help minimize soreness the next day but can help slow the development of tendonitis and climbers elbow.
Good Stretches to Prevent Elbow Pain
Here are a few good stretches that we recommend working into your climbing routine to help prevent climbers elbow. These stretches are also great ways to help treat and heal from climber’s elbow if you have already developed climbers elbow.
Stand with your feet around shoulder-distance apart, although the distance between your feet is not a defining factor in this stretch, just make sure you’re comfortable. Take the palms of your hands and put them under the soles of your feet, so your wrists bend up towards your shoulders over your toes. Feel free to bend your knees as you need to, the goal of this stretch is to stretch your arms and wrists, not your legs.
This is a great stretch to help cool down after a long day of climbing and can also be used to help stretch out your arms as you heal from climber’s elbow. One of the best parts of this stretch is that it can be done anywhere. It doesn’t require you to be sitting on the ground or anything like that. You could do this stretch at home or at the crag.
Start on your hands and knees with your palms facing down. Turn your fingers, so they are pointing back towards your knees and press through your wrists and forearms as you breathe. You should feel this stretch in your forearms and into your inner elbows.
To deepen the stretch, feel free to lower your butt down onto your knees. This will pull your shoulders back farther and stretch your wrist more as well as continuing to stretch your forearms. Continue to breathe deeply as you sink back into this stretch. Hold this stretch for around 15-20 seconds, or around 5-10 breaths.
This stretch is a great stretch to incorporate into a post climbing stretching routine as it can help minimize soreness in your forearms the day after climbing. It can also be used in the middle of a day of climbing or a long climbing gym session if you feel like your forearms are getting excessively pumped and tight.
Reverse wrist curls
Find a comfortable sitting position for this exercise, such as on a bench or chair. Your legs should be parallel to the floor when your feet are flat on the ground. You will need to get some sort of weight to do this exercise, but you could always just fill up a water bottle and hold that in your hand. You could also use a hammer, a can of food, or any other small and lightweight object.
Start with your arms resting on your thighs and holding the weight in your hands. You can do both arms at once, or one at a time, depending on if you have two weights or only one weight. With your palm facing the ground, slowly curl the back of your hand up and towards your body and then slowly lower it back down.
Repeat this motion 15-20 times on each arm. If you find it hard to do this exercise on your legs, you could also use the edge of a table as a surface to rest your arms on. Make sure you don’t use too heavy of a weight, as that is more likely to cause you harm than actually help you build up your strength.
This exercise is a great way to strengthen the tendons in your wrist and forearm that you might neglect with climbing. This can help minimize the risk you have of developing climbers elbow at all since climbers elbow is caused by an imbalance in the strength of these tendons.
Although it can be tempting to go out and buy an elbow brace or to tape up your elbow with athletic tape and go climbing, this won’t help your elbow heal any faster. In fact, you may end up injuring your elbow more if you take pain meds, tape it up, and go climbing too early into the healing process.
Using athletic tape or a brace is best if you have an existing condition or a long-term injury where a medical professional has told you that your joint needs some extra support. Many injuries won’t actually benefit from tape or braces, as they tend to push the force that would be on that joint to a different area and could potentially hurt that new area as well.
The best way to heal your climbers elbow is to stretch it regularly and to give it plenty of time to rest. Listen to your body when you’re climbing to try to prevent climbers elbow from developing in the first place. If your body is always in pain or excessively sore after climbing, you should think about toning back the amount of strain that you’re putting on your body.
Another thing to think about when training for climbing or when helping your body minimize injuries is what part of your body you are training. Climbing tends to only use certain muscles, and climbers are notorious for neglecting all other muscles. Your body is a system and each set of muscles is interconnected with the rest. That’s why a good workout plan will include strength for all of your muscle groups as well as cardio, stretching, and rest days.
Summary: Climbing Elbow Pain
Overall, pain in your elbow is common amongst climbers, but developing a good stretching routine and taking good care of your whole body, can help to minimize the chance that you will be benched from climbing by an elbow injury. Climbers elbow is simply an overuse injury and can be healed best by rest. Forcing your body to climb after an injury sooner than it’s ready is a sure-fire way to get injured again.
If you ever find yourself with climbers elbow, we recommend rest. While it might be boring in the moment, giving your body time to heal and rest will help you get back to climbing faster. While you’re resting, you can start to develop a stretching routine to help keep yourself from getting injured again and to help in the healing process.
If you found this post helpful, you’re definitely going to like our other climbing tips here.