By Helen Sinclair
A Personal Injury Survival Guide: How I Deal with Injuries in Climbing (1/3)
This story is split into:
- Part 1: The Beginning – Diagnosis
- Part 2: Getting it Back – Training
- Part 3: Beyond Injury – Climbing Better Than Before!
I know it could always be worse. It’s just that right now it could also be better. If you are reading this and are hurt from climbing or something else that is impacting your climbing – I hear you, and I feel you. It is a total downer. And while yes, it’s good the injury is not worse, I recognize that right now while you are reading this you are hurt, frustrated, unable to move and live like you would like. It totally sucks. These words are for you.
In my time as a climbing athlete I have broken my clavicle, broken my talus (ankle bone), broken my scaphoid (wrist), had knee surgery for a torn meniscus, medial epicondylitis (aka golfers elbow, but should be called climbers elbow. Almost every climber I know has had a form of this.), and, of course, have been through two shoulder surgeries. Four months after I broke my clavicle I won the New Zealand sport climbing nationals. Eighteen months after my first shoulder surgery I climbed 5.13, my pre-injury grade, and 2 years later I was climbing better than ever before. Climbing out of the pit of self-indulgent despair we call injury can be done, and what choice is there? You could quit or climb at a significantly lower lever for the rest of your life. This is an option for some, and if that’s you, congratulations. You can stop reading this article now.
This is a three part story of how I bounced back after many of my injuries and how I plan to do it again. Ok, I didn’t really bounce anywhere after injury. I crawled and clawed and inched my way back. I went up and down and backwards and sideways and a tiny bit forward, one metaphorical millimeter at a time. I had my second shoulder surgery last October for bicep tenodesis and a number of other repairs.
Part 1: The Beginning
First let’s address the diagnosis. I have worked with many different athletes as a coach and am friends with many more. I see two common mistakes. One is to ignore the injury and try to climb through it (never works). The other is to self-diagnose or diagnose without a doctor. Doctors have been to medical school for 8+ years. Find one you trust and you’ll be in good hands. I carefully select a sports doctor who is a specialist in whatever part of the body I have injured, preferably one who knows about climbing and comes recommended from the climbing community. Be patient because you might have to wait for an appointment.
A physiotherapist is not a doctor, and cannot diagnose. They can help with rehab, but get a diagnosis first. You will need an X-ray and/or a CT scan. No human can find out what is going on inside your body without looking inside it. And sometimes no one knows until a doctor actually looks inside through surgery. In my last surgery they found a ‘foreign body’ floating around in there that was removed. I kept complaining of the feeling of cut glass in my shoulder, but no one saw anything until I was cut open.
I know this is hard in the USA, but if you are injured you have to find a way. I know so many people who suffered for too long without finding out what was wrong, some who will never fully recover because they climbed through their injuries. I climbed for six weeks with my broken wrist and ended up being in a cast for double the time! I was in NZ where X-rays are free so I had no excuse. Climbing and training through pain is just stupid. There are exceptional circumstances of course, such as getting off the mountain, but most of those stories have longer recovery times because of the damage the climb out caused. Don’t do this unnecessarily.
Last October, about 10 months before my surgery, I was diagnosed by a doctor who used an x-ray and a CT scan to assist him in his assessment. I tried everything before surgery, in this case if I was to go back and do it again I would have opted for the surgery sooner. I felt like I just put my life on hold for too long before the surgery. It’s a difficult call to make when to get chopped open, and how long to try less invasive methods of rehabilitation for. I can’t tell you how or when to do this, listen to your doctor and your body and look at your personal circumstances. For my recent injury waiting 10 months was too long, I did not heal in this time and basically felt like I was doing nothing with my life – just waiting. If surgery is what you decide between you and your medical professionals just get on with it.
Once you have been diagnosed your doctor will advise you what is recommended. Decide if you trust your doctor, I went to three surgeons before deciding to go through with my first surgery. Research all you options extensively. Find support within the climbing community. Make a decision, book the surgery or really commit to the physical therapy program. For my most recent injury physical therapy made it worse. So surgery it was. I used Dr. Hackett at the Steadman clinic in Vail. I traveled to go to the doctor I trusted. Neely Quin with her podcast Training Beta addresses a lot of climbing injuries, I suggest a listen. Don’t ignore it, get educated!
Book the surgery. Work towards it. Be extra healthy before surgery and follow every single recommendation from the surgeon. I had to wait to fit my surgery into my life. I had a new job and felt I could not take time off, so I waited. But I wish I had just got it done, it only dragged out the inevitable. Once you have a date you need to arrange a support circle, who will take you to the appointment, who will look after you over the days after, who will drive you, and who will take over for you at work.
Often you will have a month or more before surgery. Get as fit as you can. I would not climb unless it is pain free and allowable by your medical consults. I was able to climb Boulder, Colorado’s Flatirons so I set a goal to climb all 5 Flatirons in a day before my surgery. Do all the physio therapy recommended. Do not just give up because you need surgery. I was running, biking, doing yoga, and lots of Pilates. I did whatever I could do that avoided my injury. There is always something – find it. I have done many miles on a stationary bike in a sling. After my wrist and foot fractures I went to the local pool. I even participated in water-aerobics with geriatrics three times my age because that was all I could do. My ego took a pretty big hit on that one. The fitter you are going in, the fitter you will be coming out of surgery and the faster your recovery.
Find a new way to live without climbing. For me I climbed nearly full time often more than 4 days a week with 3 hours for a training session, I coached with a hands-on style and went away as often as I could for long climbing days. I lived and breathed climbing. That’s a pretty big hole to fill. I was scheduled to go back out to Yosemite to be on the Search and Rescue team. I had to turn this role down and get a job that would fit with the injury and my surgery. It was devastating. After my first shoulder injury I took up cake baking. Before this recent surgery I started diving lessons because I knew I would be able to go diving a lot sooner after the surgery than I would be able to climb. So I preemptively started the process before the surgery.
Before surgery plan something awesome. Either before when you have to rest up for surgery or as something to look forward to when you can move around again after surgery. I planned vacations that I would not ordinarily do if I was able to climb. Use injury time to do new things: diving, visiting museums, botanical gardens, being with family, seeing shows, movies, etc. I frequently put climbing activities before all of these things, so it’s good for me to see other things in the world.
Stay healthy. Eat right, don’t drink, sleep right, never smoke (obviously), same old story, healthy people recover faster. This goes for those of you who are trying non-surgical treatments too. Injury time is not an opportunity to develop a drinking habit. Being healthy also includes managing stress. Stressed people recover slower, I am sure of it, and research is definitely revealing similar findings. Organize you work life balance to aid healing and your wellbeing.
A few days out from surgery be extra healthy. Drink lots of water. No alcohol intake at all. Do all the grocery shopping, re arrange the furniture for – I had to arrange my computer so I could watch TV from bed easily. Have your helpers geared up for the driving and care duties.
Finally, be brave on the day of surgery even when it seems scary. Stay calm and think positive thoughts. The day I went into the surgery the waiting lounge TV was showing breaking news of the Las Vegas shooting. I asked for it to be turned off.
Despite all of this I have had three surgeries and after each one felt a lot of pain (and am usually vomiting because of the side effects of the drugs) but even-so mentally experience a sense of relief and calm. Others I have spoken to about this also say it is similar for them. You feel physically very fragile and vulnerable, but mentally ready for the healing to begin. Congratulate yourself in getting to this point. Be gentle on yourself and allow for rest and recovery. It will take a long time. However long your recovery is understand it will be too long. But everything does have an end. This metaphorical mountain has a summit. You will be climbing again in the future and will think back to your injury experience as a blip in time.
Part 1 – The Beginning summary:
- Get a diagnosis FROM A DOCTOR.
- Make a decision about what you are going to do, book the surgery.
- Rearrange your life to fit with the surgery/injury/recovery.
- Plan something awesome for when you are recovered.
- Take up new interests.
- Get your helpers lined up.
- Stay fit
- Stay healthy.
- Get all the things you will need post-surgery lined up before surgery.
- Post-surgery – Let the healing begin!