Wrist injuries aren't as common as finger injuries (from what I've seen), but can be just as serious, if not more serious, especially as climbers often focus on fingers, elbows and shoulders and seem to forget that wrist bit in between!
I've been trying to find statistics on wrist injuries, and the most common wrist injuries, however, most articles lump wrist/finger/hand injuries all together, so after much digging, I decided to focus on 4 main wrist injuries, and these are:
- Carpal Tunnel syndrome
- Stress fracture to the hook of hamate
- TFCC (Triangular Fibrocartilage Complex) injuries
- Scapho-lunate ligament tear
The latter two will come in a follow up post, Wrist Injuries Part 2
Statistics I did manage to find:
11% of 39 rock climbers had carpal tunnel (Rooks et al 1995)
50% had hand or wrist injuries (Rooks et al 1995)
7.1% of 42 climbers had undercling wrist injury and carpal tunnel (Rohrborough et al 2000)
9 out of 115 injuries = wrist (7.8%)(Bollen 1988)
12% wrist #, 5% wrist sprain (out of 545) (Logan et al 2004)
Schwiezer (2012) has said that these injuries are frequently seen only several months after the initial trauma. A ligamentous injury is quite difficult to treat at such a late stage and the prognosis is much worse. It is recommended that you get your wrist thoroughly investigated if it has been painful for more than three weeks, to exclude such an injuries.
Anatomy of wrist
Carpal Tunnel anatomy
Carpal tunnel symptoms arise from compression of the median nerve as enters through the carpal tunnel and into the hand.
The median nerve controls the movement of the thumb, as well as sensation in the thumb and the next two-and-a-half fingers.
This compression can be caused by swelling within the carpal tunnel, or changing the orientation of the structures around the carpal tunnel, that could be caused from:
- Damage to the flexor tendons usually occurs due to overuse of the forearm flexors.
- Injury to wrist – sprain, fractures, crush injuries
- RSI -from strenuous grip, repetitive wrist flexion
- Sudden increase in activities leading to strenuous grip
The main symptoms of carpal tunnel are:
...within the affected hand
Normally in a specific pattern of the thumb and first two and a half fingers (as this is where the median nerve supplies within the hand)
However, other symptoms can include:
- a dull ache and discomfort in the hand, forearm or upper arm
- a burning, prickling sensation
- dry skin, swelling or changes in the skin colour of the hand
- becoming much less sensitive to touch (hypoaesthesia)
- weakness in the thumb when trying to bend it at a right angle, away from the palm (abduction)
- weakness and wasting away (atrophy) of the muscles in the thumb
- weakness to the hand and fingers, meaning it becomes difficult to perform dexterous tasks, such as typing or fastening buttons.
The symptoms of carpal tunnel are often worse after using the affected hand. Any repetitive actions of the hand or wrist can aggravate the symptoms, as can keeping your arm or hand in the same position for a prolonged period of time.
The symptoms of carpal tunnel tend to develop gradually and usually start off being worse at night or early in the morning.
Initial treatment of carpal tunnel should consist of the POLICE principles. This will mean resting the wrist, ceasing all aggravating activities (yes, this means climbing), avoid ports that requires a large amount of stress on the forearm flexors (yes, this also means climbing!), as well as racquet sports, gripping activities, opening jars, cans or doors, carrying or lifting.
This rest is to ensure that the body can begin the healing process and prevent causing any further damage.
Only once these activities can be performed pain free, can you gradually build up the stresses applied to the wrist and return to activities.
“No pain, no gain” attitude will cause the problem to become chronic, which then becomes a lot harder to treat and will take much longer to resolve.
If your carpal tunnel syndrome is caused by an underlying health condition such as rheumatoid arthritis, treating the condition should improve your symptoms.
- Wrist splints
- Corticosteroid injections
- Carpal Tunnel Release surgery
I will discuss the first two
A wrist splint can be worn at night to keep it in the same position and aid the rest required. A wrist splint prevents the bending of the wrist and further compression of the carpal tunnel.
Wrist splints are widely available, but you must follow the other advice to ensure the problem resolves. If there is no change within your symptoms after 4 weeks, definitely seek professional help.
The cause for your carpal tunnel could be due to:
- excessive training or activity
- muscle weakness
- muscle tightness
- joint tightness
- poor sporting technique or equipment
- inadequate warm-up
- Injury to the neck, upper back and nerves
Exercises to target muscle tightness and weakness would be extensor and flexor stretches, and extensor/flexor stengthening (see medial epicondylitis post and the images below).
As with all exercises, these should be performed pain-free. They are generic wrist flexibility and strengthening exercises for the wrist.
A physiotherapist may use other modalities and treatment techniques to resolve your carpal tunnel
Prognosis can be more than 6 months for a carpal tunnel problem to resolve
Climbing technique and carpal tunnel
Changes in climbing pattern may reduce the recurrence of carpal tunnel, especially if it was climbing that caused the carpal tunnel in the first place.
This may involve:
- training planning with warming up and cooling down
- stretching exercises,
- longer rest periods,
- use of different hand positions,
- appropriate climbing shoes
Please bear in mind that although your symptoms are portrayed as carpal tunnel syndrome, there may be a different cause to your symptoms, such as
- radial nerve at the elbow and proximal forearm may be an origin of pain (supinator tunnel syndrome). Since this is purely a motor nerve, only weakness of the wrist and finger extensors and a dull pain are perceived. Stretching exercises and deep friction massage of the supinator muscle are usually helpful and surgery is rarely necessary.
- median nerve at its passage through the pronator teres and the ulnar nerve at the elbow (cubital tunnel syndrome) and at the hypothenar, but this is rare.
- Digital nerves may also be compressed but rather acutely (neuropraxia) when squeezed into cracks or holes, activating a sharp electrifying pain directly over the nerve with a hyposensitivity and numbness below the injury. These symptoms usually disappear after a few weeks. (Schwiezer 2012)
Hook of hamate stress fracture
A hook of hamate fracture is quite rare, but is quite a climbing-specific injury (can occur in golfers too) that has been observed during a repeated attempt of an under-cling-grip on a difficult boulder.
The fracture was caused by the climber holding his wrist in an ulnar-abduction where the FDP-tendons of the small and ring-finger are deflected by the hamate hook. The high forces at the hamulus finally led to a basal-fracture of the hamate (indirect fracture type).
Similar to the scaphoid, hamate fractures cannot be picked up on normal x-rays. This means this type of injury is rarely diagnosed
- Ulnar nerve symptoms such as:
- Numbness or tingling (‘pins and needles’) in the little and ring fingers
- Numbness or tingling in the heel of the hand
- Weakness in the hand when performing fine motor movements, straightening the ring and little fingers, and spreading the fingers
- Muscle atrophy
- localisation of tenderness over the hook of hamate
- pain on movement of the ring and/or little finger due to the proximity of the flexor tendons to the hook (Barton )
The fracture can be treated successfully with a special splint in ulnar and radial deviation of the wrist if picked up early enough. (Schwiezer 2012 and Barton )
Otherwise, an excision of the fragment, but this is quite a delicate operation, with mixed results.
Bayer T, Schweizer A. 2009 Stress fracture of the hook of the hamate as a result of intensive climbing. J Hand Surg Eur Vol. 34:276–7.
Peters P. 2001 Nerve compression syndromes in sport climbers. Int J Sports Med 22:611–7.
Rooks MD, Johnston RB , Ensor CD, McIntosh B, James S. 1995 Injury patterns in recreational rock climbers. Am J Sports Med 23(6): 683-685
Barton N 1997 Sports injuries of the hand and wrist. Br J Sports Med 31: 191-196
Rohrbough, J. T., M. K. Mudge, R. C. Schilling 2000 Overuse injuries in the elite rock climber. Med. Sci. Sports Exerc., 32(8):1369–1372.
Logan AJ, Makwana N, Mason G, Dias J. 2004 Acute hand and wrist injuries in experienced rock climbers.Br J Sports Med. 38(5):545-8.
Bollen 1988 Soft tissue injury in extreme rock climbers. British Journal of Sports Medicine 22(4): 145-147
Next post: Wrist injuries part 2: Scapholunate injuries and instability and TFCC Injuries