Healthy Tahoe: Rest, recovery from a climbing injury

LeeAnn Mills, PTA
Climbing requires exceptional upper body strength to complete high-torque, repetitive movements. Here, LeeAnn demonstrates a reaching maneuver on an inverted bouldering wall in the climbing gym. (Proivded / Bligh Gillies)

Lake Tahoe offers access to many outdoor sports and is a renowned playground for climbers of all styles and experience levels. To reach the top, climbers ask a lot of their upper body, performing forceful, repetitive movements that can often result in shoulder injuries.

The shoulder is a highly complex joint with many components. It can be likened to a golf ball situated on a tee: the shoulder socket (tee) is quite shallow and small; while the arm bone that meets it (golf ball) is large. This delicate design requires the ligaments, cartilage and muscle of the shoulder joint to work hard to stabilize and allow movement in the joint.

As a climber becomes more experienced, trying new routes and upping the difficulty, the probability of injury increases. Persisting through pain can create a cycle of overworking other joints and muscles to compensate, especially in a complex joint like the shoulder. Labral abnormalities are common among climbers, this is the cartilage found in the shoulder joint where the arm bone meets the socket (where the tee meets the golf ball), as well as tendon and muscle tears.

Even for the strongest climbers, fundamental strength and mobility training are crucial. If pain develops, it is important to begin the recovery process immediately to avoid continued pain or future injuries.

It’s best to understand a recovery process that works for your body. A physical therapist can offer an individualized and step-by step process to help you come back from injury and prevent future occurrences.

With either an acute or chronic injury, the first step is to deload, or take a break when pain emerges. Appropriate breaks allow a decrease in inflammation or swelling, reducing pain and tissue overload.

Step two in the recovery process is aimed at mobility. During this step, it’s important to spend time reestablishing normal, pain free range of motion. If your pain, inflammation or decreased mobility returns at any time during the second step, go back and repeat step one.

Left untreated, an injury will put climbing on hold, making it quite difficult or even impossible to complete your next climbing goal. A physical therapist can help optimize your climbing performance with strengthening and rest techniques to keep you out enjoying your local routes.

LeeAnn Mills is a physical therapist assistant at the Barton Center for Orthopedics & Wellness, specializing in treating climbing and other sports-related injuries. She is an avid climber who can often be found on a route in the Tahoe basin. To learn more about Barton Rehabilitation or Performance, visit

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