Indoor climbing can seem like a high-risk activity. Here’s what the research says about climbing-related injuries and what can be done to minimize the risk.
By Ryan Halvorson
A major barrier that prevents people from excelling at—or event trying—indoor climbing is fear of injury. That’s only natural. Getting roped up and climbing some 50-plus feet from the ground or going support-free on the boulders seems like a dangerous undertaking. We looked at some of the research on the issue to determine how risky the sport actually is.
Acute Injury Rates
According to researchers from Germany, acute injury risks while indoor climbing are minimal. This statement is the result of data collected from an indoor climbing gym over 5 years. During that time there were 515,337 visits and a total of 30 injuries reported. Twenty-two of the injuries were among males and eight among females. The most injuries happened while lead climbing and top roping. Poor belaying techniques were the most common cause of tall-wall injury. Incorrect falling patterns accounted for most of the bouldering injuries.
Based on this data, the researchers conclude that indoor climbing is a low-risk activity. You’re far more likely to hurt yourself playing basketball, going for a run, or even while nordic walking than climbing indoors.
And, according to Keegan Dimmick, Mesa Rim Director of Operations, the injury risk at Mesa Rim is very low.
“As of today, you have a .0004% chance of being injured when visiting Mesa Rim,” he says. “This only counts reported injuries, and an injury is anything that would lead us to provide ice, or more care.”
Ian McIntosh, president and co-owner of Mesa Rim credits the minimal injury risk to extra attention to detail and extensive education by staff to members and guests on best practices, safety checks, and gym etiquette.
Injury Type and Risk Factors
Acute injury risk is quite low, but when injuries do happen, they tend to present in specific areas and certain people. One study of 426 Dutch recreational climbers determined that the finger was the most common injured area, followed by the elbow, and shoulder. Older climbers were more likely to suffer injury as well as those using a campus board. Other risk factors included middle finger strength and previous injury.
Another report also found that overuse injuries are more common than acute ones and that injury rates were higher among men than women. Other risk factors included:
- climbing for more than 10 years;
- those who climb harder routes;
- and those who boulder or lead climb more than they top rope.
Injury Rates and Risks in Young Climbers
Youth injuries tended to mimic those experienced by adults. In a study of 116 youth climbers in Alberta, Canada, the most common injured areas were the fingers and hands. Strains and sprains were the most common injury types. The injury rate was 4.44 injuries per 1,000 climbing hours. Being older, having a previous injury from another sport, and preventive taping placed kids at a higher risk for injury.
The researchers advise climbers to recognize the signs and symptoms of overuse and take precautions to avoid serious injury. They add that emphasizing safety protocols will reduce climbing-related injuries.
How to Minimize Risk
The research on climbing injuries sheds light on what can be done to improve safety. Understanding the risks—however minimal they are—and how to minimize them can better prepare you for successful, injury-free climbing both in and out of the gym.
Here, Mesa Rim front desk staffer and longtime climber Matteo Navarro offers his tips to reduce the potential for acute and overuse injuries while bouldering, top-roping, and lead climbing.
“First and foremost, understand your limits,” he says. “One person can climb for 6 hours and not have a problem whereas someone else should climb only for an hour.”
Generally, those who are new to climbing—no matter the fitness level—should take it easy at the start with two or three sessions a week lasting no more than an hour each, he says. Once you’ve got a good amount of training under your belt then you can start to log more time on the wall.
“Focus on technique and slower movements, and avoid dynamic movements,” Matteo says. “Stick to routes and problems that have higher profile holds. Even pros have to focus on the basics. Sometimes forgetting the basics will hold you back.”
He adds, “Notice signs of fatigue. If you’re normally a 5.10 climber, but you’re struggling to get up a 5.5, it’s time to take a break or call it quits for the day. Also, look out for acute pains or inflammation in the joints. Ignoring this can lead to more severe consequences down the road. It’s not worth pushing yourself if you end up being out for 2 weeks.”
Here are Matteo’s tips for reducing risk in the three primary areas of the gym.
- Don’t climb higher than you feel comfortable climbing. It’s not always about topping out. Only climb to a point where you can have a controlled fall.
- Focus on downclimbing and avoid jumping. Practicing downclimbing will improve your technique and also minimize ground forces if and when you fall. Look for jug ladders and high-profile holds to help you climb down safely. Also, be sure to plan your downclimb route before you ascend.
- Use a spotter when necessary. This is especially helpful in caves or overhangs where you have an increased risk of falling on your head. The spotter can help keep the body upright so that you land on your feet.
- Be aware of people and objects in your area. Before you start up the wall, make sure your route is clear and that other climbers won’t cross into it.
- Don’t get complacent. It’s easy to get comfortable in a climbing gym due to the reduced risks, but that doesn’t mean you’re exempt from injury. Regardless of your experience level or your relationship with your belayer, always do your safety checks. Oftentimes, it’s the most experienced climbers who hurt themselves because they overlook their checks. Also, keep your conversation to climbing-only. Casual conversations can lead to distraction and injury.
- Practice good communication. People tend to not say anything while they’re on the walls, which can lead to miscommunication and increased injury risk. Stay in contact with the belayer at all times and be sure to use the appropriate cues so she knows what she needs to do to keep you safe. And use the person’s first name; gyms and crags can be busy and loud which makes it difficult to know who’s talking to who.
- Never back clip. This increases the risk of a major fall because the rope could unclip itself out of the carabiner.
- Skip the back-step. Back-stepping is when you take a step causing the rope to rest over the back of your leg. Should you fall, you risk being flipped over and slamming head-first into the wall. Make sure to keep the rope between your body and the wall.
- Try not to use your teeth. While it may be impossible to do this all the time, aim to clip into the quickdraw at hip height. People will often use their teeth to hold the rope while reaching overhead to clip in, which can earn you a painful visit to the dentist should you fall before you’re secure.
All in all, indoor climbing can be considered a safe activity that’s appropriate for all levels. Careful attention to safety checks, understanding the risks involved, and staying vigilant of yourself and your surroundings will keep the injury risk low and the stoke high.
Do you want more in-depth instruction on how to climb safer? Check out our climbing classes here.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row]