I had been rock climbing for about three years, when I started adding pullups and fingerboard exercises to my routine. Soon after I started this, I developed a tightness feeling in my biceps area that I could not stretch away. A few weeks later, I experienced the first twinges of a medial elbow issue that would worsen and frustrate me for a year.
Medial Epicondylitis (climber’s elbow)
Medial epicondylitis, also called climber’s elbow, golfer’s elbow, and medial epicondylosis, is characterized by pain on the inside of the elbow, on the bony knob where almost all the flexor muscles of the hand and wrist come from. Since rock climbers are always pulling with their fingers and hands to lift their body weight up, these flexor muscles are under a lot of strain. If everything is not working just right, inflammation or degeneration in this muscle/tendon/bone junction can develop. In my case, I felt a constant tenderness if I touched the bone or leaned up against something, and had stiffness and pain in the mornings. It was never excruciating pain, probably not more than a 5/10 unless I touched it hard, but it was always there.
My early attempts at treatment
Being a chiropractor, I figured I had all the knowledge and tools at my disposal to fix the problem and eliminate the pain. First, I tried to continue pull ups and finger exercises while concentrating on stretching the flexor muscles. However, I could tell right away that the pull ups were making it worse, so I stopped them temporarily. I was concentrating on stretching the finger flexors by placing my hands, palm down/fingers backwards, on the ground and leaning back. These muscles were definitely tight, and the stretch felt good, so I felt hopeful that once they loosened up, the pain would stop. In the meantime, I was using ice and electric/ultrasound modalities in my office.
After a month or so of that, I wasn’t getting significantly better, so I went for a massage. The massage therapist found a lot of knots in the forearm and also remarked how tight my triceps felt. I felt better after that for a few days or so, but the nagging pain started to return. However, I felt like that was the first glimpse of progress.
Someone in the climbing gym mentioned some kind of scraping therapy they had, which seemed to help. It sounded like a treatment called Graston therapy where a piece of metal is used to scrape the muscles. I tried to recreate this as home with the end of a hairbrush, and it felt really good, so I went deeper and deeper into the flexor muscle. I felt a lot of relief after this super deep self massage, and ended up with bruising for a few days.
This new tack felt like it was the most promising so I started researching devices that could do a better job than the hairbrush. I bought a thumb saver massage device, which was similar to the hairbrush, and a Rolflex. A Rolflex is a vise like device with roller attached to it that you put your arm into and squeeze allowing to to put a lot of pressure right on knotted muscles. It’s popular in climbing circles, and with baseball pitchers. This device was awesome. Basically, it allowed me to do foam rolling on my arms, and reduced the pain pretty quickly by 60%. I started by working the forearm, and progressed to the biceps and triceps as well. I found some really tender spots in the triceps, (consistent with what the massage therapist had said) and noticed big gains of relief when I released them.
However, the early gains did not ever translate to complete relief. I had some periods of no pain, but it always came back if I stopped the almost daily use of the Rolflex.
That’s when I discovered the Theragun, a handheld percussive therapy device that’s gaining popularity in the fitness and sports industries. The Theragun works by sending rapid, high-frequency pulses deep into the muscle tissue, which helps to increase blood flow, reduce muscle tension, and alleviate pain.
I was skeptical at first, but after reading countless positive reviews, I decided to give it a try. I started using the Theragun on my arm muscles, focusing on the areas that were causing me the most pain. I immediately noticed a difference. The Theragun’s percussive action allowed me to reach deep into the muscle tissue and work out knots and tension that were impossible to reach with other devices or methods. Within a week of using the Theragun, my elbow pain was almost completely gone.
Of course, it’s important to note that the Theragun is not a replacement for proper medical care, and it’s always a good idea to consult with a healthcare professional before starting any new treatment. In my case, I had tried a number of different therapies and devices before discovering the Theragun, and it was the one that worked best for me. However, every case of medial epicondylitis is different, and what works for one person may not work for another.
In addition to using the Theragun, I also made some changes to my climbing routine to help prevent a recurrence of the issue. I reduced the frequency and intensity of my fingerboard exercises and pull ups, and started incorporating more wrist-strengthening exercises into my routine. I also made sure to warm up properly before climbing and stretch thoroughly afterward.
In conclusion, medial epicondylitis, or climber’s elbow, is a common issue among rock climbers and other athletes who use their hands and fingers frequently. While there are a number of different treatments and devices available, finding the right one for you may require some trial and error. In my case, the Theragun proved to be a game-changer, but it’s always a good idea to consult with a healthcare professional before starting any new treatment.
If you have questions about whether a chiropractor or a Theragun can help your problem, contact us at our Norwalk, CT office for a consultation.