Matilda der Brecher, photo credit Bruce Willey

Kids and Climbing Injuries

As coaches, parents, and healthcare providers, we have the opportunity to look after the best interests of our kids and to influence their decision-making processes toward a sustainable and healthy climbing career and life.  Important and helpful research has been done about various topics of avoidable dangers to kids who climb, especially at an elite level.

  1. Growth plate fractures
growth plate
growth plate

What is it?

Fractures at the growth plates of bones of the fingers, especially the middle and ring finger appear to be increasing.  Growth plates are places within the long bones of the body (fingers, humerus, femur) where growth of the bone continues to occur until the body is fully developed. If the growth plate is fractured, the bone may not develop properly, and deformities can occur.  The growth plates typically close between the ages of 13 and 17 years.  During this period before growth plate closure, the skeletal mass increases significantly, which is a problem for climbers because the growth spurt adds more weight to the body, which in turn makes it more difficult to pull oneself up the rock.  Additionally, the growth plates are two to five times weaker than the surrounding connective tissues.  Therefore, during this developmental stage, there is a combination of the weak point in the fingers, the growth spurt, which increases weight, and a subsequent increase in finger strength training intensity to counter the increased weight.  All of these factors lead to the increased incidence of fractures in kids, which can potentially have long term consequences on their climbing careers and other finger related activities in the future.  The fractures are not typically due to a single traumatic incident but rather occur over a period of time due to repeated micro-traumas.

What can we do?

Educating kids about the importance of notifying their parent, caregiver, trainer, or coach of any pain they notice in their fingers is crucial so they can be evaluated by a medical professional who is preferably familiar with climbing-related injuries.  Morrison, Shoffl, et al state that “Climbers who delayed reporting joint pain, ignored medical advice and continued to train intensively, especially on the ‘‘Campusboard’’, experienced permanent deformity of the affected finger with some loss of range of motion.”4  A further training recommendation is to focus on more volume (higher reps with less intensive climbing) and technique with a variety of climbing types rather than intensity and strength.  The more efficient the climber, the less strength and brute force is needed.  Furthermore, there are suggestions to consider avoiding intensive finger strengthening and boulder competitions for kids 16 and under.1,2,3,4

  1. Eating Disorders

In climbing, it is easier to propel yourself upward if there is less weight working to keep you on the ground.  However, for kids who are not yet fully developed, trying to maintain a body weight that is below their natural level can negatively affect the development of their skeletal and neuroendocrine systems as well as their metabolism and even the changes that occur during puberty.  This desire to maintain a lean physique, especially when below one’s natural weight, also has the potential to lead to the development of eating disorders.  Eating disorders are typically more prevalent in women, however, they occur in both sexes in the general and climbing populations.4  Progressing to an eating disorder usually occurs gradually and can have serious long term, potentially fatal effects which may include osteoporosis and/or cardiovascular, digestive, and kidney disorders.  Furthermore, the psychological effects of eating disorders are devastating and long lasting.  The primary tool for prevention of eating disorders is education, and it is recommended to begin educating kids on this subject as early as 9 to 11 years of age.  Additionally, red flags signaling unhealthy methods of weight loss include “starvation, fasting, frequently skipping meals, overeating, and binge-eating followed by purging, as well as the use of diet pills, laxatives, diuretics, and even excessive exercise” as mentioned in an excellent article by Coelho, Gomez, et al.5  If any of these signs are noticed, getting the climber professional help as soon as possible can help prevent potentially irreversible consequences.

As a former high school and college wrestler, I find that eating disorders are much more prevalent then the general population realizes.  In the beginning, there’s a slippery slope involved, rather than big flashy red flags.  You skip a meal here or there, you start exercising intensely without proper hydration or nutrition, you experiment with eating a big meal and purging it afterwards, and on and on.  If the person is fortunate, its an experiment that leads to the realization that these methods aren’t healthy, decrease performance, and just aren’t worth it.  But sometimes it leads down a long hard road of struggle and misery.  Our kids need us to be aware and to guide them on their paths.

Check out Beyond Tape: The Guide to Climbing Injury Prevention and Treatment for more information about warming up, stretching, and other climbing injury related topics.  Subscribe here to get the latest posts and like my facebook page for updates and more information.  My primary motivations for Beyond Tape and any of the posts are to:       1. Check out the most relevant and up-to-date research for each topic in order to dispel myths, sift out conflicting views, and help people to prevent or heal from injuries – letting me know about new research or opposing views is helpful and greatly appreciated       2. Contribute to the local and global communities by donating 100% of my net profits from Beyond Tape to service-based non-profit organizations, such as Rotary International, Doctor’s Without Borders, Access Fund, etc.

1 Schöffl V, Morrison A, Schöffl I, Küpper T.  The epidemiology of injury in mountaineering, rock and ice climbing.  Med Sport Sci. 2012;58:17-43.

2 Schöffl V, Popp D, Küpper T, Schöffl I.  Injury trends in rock climbers: evaluation of a case series of 911 injuries between 2009 and 2012.  Wilderness Environ Med. 2015 Mar;26(1):62-7.

3 Woollings KY, McKay CD, Kang J, Meeuwisse WH, Emery CA.  Incidence, mechanism and risk factors for injury in youth rock climbers.  Br J Sports Med. 2015 Jan;49(1):44-50.

4 Morrison AB, Schoffl VR.  Physiological responses to rock climbing in young climbers.  Br J Sports Med 2007;41:852–861.

5 Coelho GM1, Gomes AI2, Ribeiro BG2, Soares ED1.  Prevention of eating disorders in female athletes.  Open Access J Sports Med. 2014 May 12;5:105-113.