(note: rather long post about flexor unit strains, my personal mapped path to recovery as well as information found and a recipe or two. Only for people equally obsessed with overcoming injuries!)
Although I can’t say that I’ve been so busy climbing that little else has been able to filter into my days (flexor unit strain, month 1 1/2!) I have been cross training like no other than, in the words of Brennen, like “a boss do in the hood.” In fact, in what is known as the most stressful week of any college students life, Exam week, I actually spent more time training than stressing, procrastinating, or whining about exams. (Imagine!) So as a spoiled rotten college kid, I spent three to four hours before going into work in the free gym–running, biking, bench press, weights, lock offs, ab workouts, wide/narrow/reverse frenchies, etc… All without putting much if any strain on my hurt finger.
For anyone who has sustained a flexor unit strain, you might know that there is virtually zero verified information on the web in terms of research. I have spent hours looking up information about diagnosis, treatment and recovery only to find a plethora of messy forums with climbers who took a “painstaking 3 weeks off” and taped it to climb again. This strikes me as odd, for if you really, really did love a sport, why on earth would you climb through pain only to have a crucial finger (indeed all fingers are crucial..) never fully recover and possibly cut your climbing ‘career’ short?! As I am now a month and a half without any real sort of climbing, I can definitely understand coming back early and know it is extremely hard to be away from something you love doing. For us climbers who are also students, or work in the real world, climbing is such an amazing balance with what we do, and to have both a job we love and a sport we love to balance the other is essential. When one is taken completely out of the equation, it makes us feel like we’ve experienced a loss in our life. (Dramatic, but as a past athlete, I think this is true!)
So although I am no expert, I will begin to compile all the resources I have found and add my own thoughts and exercises which I hope will be the best way towards a safe recovery. Here is a write up of my injury, plus a week by week list of what measures I took to work towards reducing inflammation, increasing blood flow, and resting.
My injury happened while I was three or four days on from climbing. The day before was a CCS competition that I had entered, and the day of we were doing some pretty physically exhausting work at a local ‘Adopt-a-Crag’ volunteer day, carrying heavy loads for a few hours in the morning. Afterwards, I had a poor warmup and tried to flash a known soft V7 at a local crag. I caught a hold with my middle finger only and wanting to stay on, attempted to move off of it. Everyone heard a distinct *pop* and although it took about ten minutes to feel, I felt my arm numb a little and I experienced pain from my finger to about midway down my forearm. Pinching, picking up objects, bending in any way drew a great deal of pain, but touching the finger on the sides from the tip to base drew no pain at all (difference between a pulley injury and a tendon injury.) My tendons were probably already very tired from the past days’ activities, plus brain fatigue/overall tiredness from the volunteer work may have added to the inability to process my mistake and let go of the hold quickly.)
Week 1: Ice only and some form of anti-inflammatory; At this stage, the finger was a tiny bit swollen and did not need heat to follow the ice. I would fill a large bowl with ice and water and submerge my hand until about the wrist. Although ice has not been shown to have an effect either way on tendon recovery, many have incorporated it into
their routine to combat pain as well. For an anti-inflammatory, I have tried to stray away from ibuprofen. As noted in a semi-recent issue of Climbing magazine, these non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs may mask the pain temporarily, but with long term use could have serious health effects on the body. Try searching for natural antiinlammatory medicines (I found Wobenzym, which is supposed to help reduce inflammation and support tendon health.) I have also been cooking extensively with foods known to have natural anti-inflammatory properties, such as ginger, cayenne pepper, cinnamon, and more.
Week 2-3: Now is the time I started introducing heat. One resource said that tendon injuries in our fingers are known for healing painfully slow in part because they receive so little blood flow. After a moderately cold ice bath (4-6 minutes at a time) I put my hand in a lukewarm bowl about 30 seconds afterwards. It’s amazing how you can really feel the blood rushing into your hand at this point. I usually did this back and forth 3 or 4 times and twice minimum daily. I incoporated cross training exercises like running, yoga, and some weights that places zero strain on the finger. Continue natural anti-inflammatory and supplementation if you want. Although your body can only utilize a certain amount of vitamins, supplements, minerals, etc…I began taking iron, zinc, fish oil, and vitamin C as all have been noted to help the tendon cells recover. (See below for doses)
Week 4-5:Continuing with fish oil (3 times a day,) zinc (once daily,) iron (once daily,) vitamin C (once faily,) and my anti-inflammatory (I take it on an empty stomach in the morning and wait 45 minutes before eating.) At this point, I begin stretching mildly and beginning the ‘opposition-strength’ phase. Sounds super technical, right? Wrong! I merely take a rubber band, place it on the outside of all my fingers, and open and close my hand absentmindedly while I do something else, like absentmindedly take notes in class. This causes no pain and will begin to help strengthen the opposing muscles, hopefully making the hand overall stronger and providing less complications for getting back into climbing. (A better tool than a rubberband would be the Metolius gripsaver.) I do this with both hands. Afraid that my right hand/arm will begin to get weak also, I continue training but doing some exercises with my right arm only, like one-arm lockoffs for 10-15 seconds. It’s fun and gets you weird looks from meatheads in the gym who don’t understand how girl + muscles smaller than theirs = lock offs?! I recommend this to all climbers, regardless of injuries, as you will be entertained every time without fail.
Week 6: Well I’ll be darned, that’s this week. I’ve still been running 5-7 miles a day just trying to stay active/sane and doing everything mentioned before, but it’s been awesome getting involved with other things and learning new things outside of climbing. I have just tried to stay optimistic and take this as a time to learn. Yes, it sucks so hard, but what you take from it and learn is something to be appreciative of too. All of the research I have done and cross training makes me feel like I will be a much stronger and well-rounded climber when I return. This week I bought the Prohands Heavy-tension grip master for my right hand and take it with me on long walks with my puppydawrg crimping down all the way! Within the week I will either (1) test my finger with vertical, juggy climbing to see what movements are okay and keep pressure minimal, also to increase blood flow or (2) invest in another prohands grip master, but seek the extra-light tension model.
Some websites with articles you might want to read yourself include:
and if I could offer any last bit of advice (I know, as if I haven’t already written a more detailed report than any college paper in my life!) I would say don’t get too down, use it as an opportunity to become stronger, have more knowledge, and grow as a climber. It’s not a life or death injury, in fact 2-5 months is comparatively nothing, especially when you think of how much more balanced and healthy you will be for the rest of your climbing years if you stay off of it until pain is gone. I’m just having fun researching a ton, staying involved in exercise of some sort, and cheering on my friends who, freakin crush and keep me psyched! My above routine and examples may be way too thorough or excessive, but as stated before, it is just fun for me to do the research because I am a nerd and like to know as much as possible about what I am trying to heal!
Hope this helps in any way, keep climbing and doing what you love!
(Recipes in the recipe tab! Healthy meals and not so healthy desserts. Mmmmm!)