Finger, elbow and shoulder pain/injury is as common as muck in climbing. There’s plenty of ideas for rehabbing these injuries at the area itself but what’s bewildering is no one’s looking beyond the arm! If the arm is commonly injured it’s likely something else in the chain is putting excess strain on these structures.
If you only look at the body as separate parts you’ll likely rehab the area of pain but be constantly confused when there’s minimal improvement, the injury reoccurs or a similar pathology happens. The body is one whole entity, an integration of all parts, their relationships and how they interact. Therefore it’s vital to track the chains of the whole movement and solve any obvious limitations, as well as the injured area, even if they don’t at first seem relevant to the injury or pain. Seems complicated but it’s simple; everything’s connected!
In a vertical sport where our arms spend most of the time above the head pulling hard it’s amazing how rarely the shoulders connection to and movement relationship with the thoracic spine and rib mechanics is mentioned. Having rehabbed many shoulder injuries there’s always a thoracic extension issue coupled with the injury and so getting the thoracics moving well is a deal breaker to the healing process and reducing the likelihood of repeating unnecessary injuries.
What’s the thoracic spine?
The thoracics constitute the middle bit of your spine running from the base of your neck to just below your rib cage. The thoracic spine is there with the potential to be highly mobile (unlike your lower back). Using rotation, flexion and extension it’s optimal functional range is relevant in almost all major movements like throwing, lifting or pulling yourself up.
What’s this got to do with the shoulder and arm?
Everything! The bones of the spine are attached to your arm by a whole multitude of muscles, fascia and joints. Save boring you with an anatomy lecture let’s just use one muscle, the lat, to demo this.
The lat attaches to all of the vertebrae from the bottom of the rib cage down to the coccyx, runs along the crest of the hip, spans across the lower 3 or 4 ribs and bottom of the shoulder blade, and finally wraps round to the front of the arm up near the shoulder. Its main movement responsibility is pulling the arm down, in and rotating towards the midline (all the necessary parts to do a pull up). So moving your arm is connected to not just the middle back, but the low back and hip just from this one muscle. Again everything’s connected!
Why’s the thoracic spine important for the climber?
When you pull up you pull from the muscles connecting your hands, elbows, shoulders, shoulder blades, and spine. Therefore lots of movement in the ribs and thoracic spine and good kinetic sequencing between all of these joints helps keep everything healthy.
Good kinetic sequencing would mean when you lift your hand above your head the arm movement is coupled with the shoulder blade moving, ribs lifting and thoracics extending.
Without good thoracic movement the shoulders get locked up (at around 120-40degrees) but forced to move and you can end up excessively arching the low back in an attempt to make up for the lack of movement and still reach the next hold. This is a great way to beat up your shoulders causing injuries like:
- Impingements aggravating the AC (acromioclavicular), SC (sternoclavicular) or Bicipital groove joints
- Joint laxity (instability) by overstretching the ligament support of the shoulder
- Rotator cuff, deltoid & Bicep strains from being over worked
- Low back strains and possible early degeneration of the lumbar discs.
Still not sure it’s key? Try testing your thoracic extension and you’ll feel the connection.
Why do the thoracics get locked up?
Climbing muscle use – Some of the main muscles used in climbing are the lats, pecs and obliques. These big strong muscles attach to the front of the arm and when they shorten from being used they pull the head forward, chest down, shoulder in and forward. Left tense, short and tight overtime these muscles will adaptively shorten and restrict the opposing movements.
Sitting more – We are spending more and more time sitting (at work, in cars, tv, laptops and smartphones), usually in a hunched over posture.
Mood – If we are low on energy, feeling a bit down and dull it’s quite common to see this mood reflected in a slumped, hunched over posture. Again if this persists our soft tissues adaptively shorten and this posture becomes our new normal.
3 great ways to open up your thoracics
Live the rock life,