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Injuries and Medical Advice

Climbing Injuries: Lumbrical Tear

Often confused for ruptured pulleys, lumbrical tears are common climbing injuries.

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Hoping it’s Monday there Down Under, and I may get advice. Was at a buddy’s BBQ yesterday drinking some beers and hopped on his hangboard. Was a little too aggressive on a two-finger pocket, heard a small pop in my right hand, and felt a twinge up my forearm. Today there is no swelling, no bruising and no pain in the middle of my hand. Could I have blown a pulley?


Hi, yes, you are smarter than most in this regard, it is Monday Down Under.
Unfortunately, intelligence is a rather nuanced human commodity and, upon reading further, I find you are in fact quite stupid. Being drunk, not warming up and being “too aggressive” check all the boxes for “idiot.”

There is no swelling or pain in the finger because the finger, including the pulleys, is fine. This is a classic case of a fourth lumbrical tear. The lumbricals are four muscles in the palm that, oddly, don’t actually attach to any bone, but rather flow between the FDS flexor tendon of neighboring fingers. Usually fingers are not under high loads when operating at different
lengths, i.e., when one finger is pulled into the palm and the other fully extended, as happens on a mono or two-finger pocket.

When tendons are pulled tight at diametrically opposed lengths, the poor wee lumbrical muscle is strung tighter than a G-string at Jenny Craig’s Florida chapter.

Search my website for “Dr. J Test” and you will see that other climbers have suffered the same fate. The test involves flexing one finger into your palm while pulling on its neighbor in an open-hand position. Picture pulling on a mono pocket with your ring finger while simultaneously flexing the little finger into your palm.

As dumb luck would have it, this is probably the best of the finger injuries to
have. You can actually climb fairly well after just a week off as long as you do not split the affected fingers. If pain occurs when you curl the ring finger into your palm, then, aside from trying to make yourself look less stupid,
you will need to keep these fingers together at all times. Any deviation will result in a jolt like that from an electric cow prod.

Do not buddy tape. Taping is a pain in the ass and achieves little more than
further retarding the finger biomechanics and a concomitant increased risk of other injuries. Instead, run a small piece of tape down the back of the finger that causes pain when pulled to the palm, and anchor it to the back of your hand. Any attempt to flex the finger will pull on the skin and remind
you not to.

Pay attention to your pain levels and climb/don’t climb accordingly.

This article on lumbrical tears appeared in Rock and Ice issue 261 (January 2020).