I consider myself to be fairly lucky. In my approximately 13 years climbing, I have sustained, what I consider to be, a small amount of injuries. Yes, I did bash my head open after I swung into the wall at the age of 11, and at 14 I had a brief bout with tendonitis in my left ring finger. I have sprained both wrists numerous times, and there was that unfortunate I-was-in-the-climbing-gym-but-not-actually-climbing-when-it-happened broken femur incident. All of these taught young me some important values, blah blah blah, or so I thought. Truth was, all these injuries were relatively easy to recover from for me (with the exception of the broken femur, but that is a whole different ballgame), and none of them instilled in me any sort of discipline. With a little bit of rest and ice and maybe a goofy brace, and I would be miraculously healed and crushing again in no time. I was young, I was naive, and I was invincible — or so I thought. It wasn’t until my first long-term injury — the great equalizer — occurred that I truly learned the importance of taking care of my body, and how to know when to say enough was enough with my extensive training.
When I began competitively rock climbing at the age of 11, I always pushed myself very hard, with little to no regard to pain or fatigue. I’ve always been a pretty tough kid, and never wanted to go through the drama of being injured. So at the onset of any sort of pain, I ignored it until it became an issue. It was during my training for an international speed climbing competition that I first noticed a nagging pain in my left elbow. It felt like it might be tendonitis, but I didn’t want to bother with it until after the competition, so I didn’t. I just repeated the same training, day after day, making very repetitive motions while running laps on the same routes, over and over. Sound like a recipe for an overuse injury to you? Rhetorical question: the answer is yes. Long story short, through years of neglecting the pain as well as several misdiagnoses, I am now the proud owner of Thoracic Outlet Syndrome in my left shoulder.
To me,”Thoracic” always sounded like a period during the time of dinosaurs, and I now wish that’s all it was. It’s basically an impingement of the three nerves that run through my arm, in a narrow compartment in my shoulder, that causes pain in my arm and numbness in my hand. If I had caught it in time when I was younger and treated it properly, I might have been pain-free today. But I was a total doof, and so have a persistent, painful, and sometimes debilitating injury to contend with now.
What I gained from the injury is a lot of the obvious — listen to your body, take it easy, stuff like that. But probably the most important thing this injury has given me is perspective on the sport of climbing and what it personally means to me. I took four years off from climbing in the hope that the TOS would go away. It subsided during that absence, and it was very devastating to me when I started climbing again and the pain came roaring back like I had never even taken a break. Doctors advised me to essentially just quit the one thing that injured me, and pained me the most: rock climbing. I had to ask myself, is climbing worth the pain? The answer has always been an instantaneous “yes.” I’m right-handed, so if I can’t climb with it, what good is my left arm anyways? So I reached a point where I had to make peace with my pain — this was now a necessary evil if I wanted to keep doing what I loved. I stopped asking “what if,” and decided that climbing was worth it. After quite a lot of physical therapy I am to the point where I can climb regularly, but constant stretching and strengthening exercises are necessary to keep me mostly pain-free.
The prolonged absence from climbing also made me appreciate the sport much more than I ever had, in a much more healthy way. I grew up competing, so climbing was a very serious, training-based affair. Yes, it was fun sometimes, but work most of the time. When I got back into climbing after my hiatus, I was so grateful just to be on the wall, that training was never a thought in my mind. My pride was gone, grade-chasing days over. I was proud just to send 5.10. And most importantly, I learned how to just take it easy. And not just when my arm was hurting. If anything else is especially achey, if I felt overly-tired, or just not psyched, I don’t make myself climb anymore.
There are days I show up to the gym, decide it’s not working today, and head to the bar. My injury turned climbing from an achievement-based obsession to what it is now for me — a release from my daily life, and something to be passionate about but not take too seriously. It’s unfortunate that it took an almost-career-ending injury for me to come to this point, but I finally feel like climbing has its proper, most healthy place in my life. Totally at the expense of my left arm, though. Sorry, left arm!