Recovering from a pulley injury- The ice cream stick therapy!
Disclaimer: Before you read this you should know that I’m not a sports physiotherapist or a doctor. I’ve been climbing and travelling a lot in the past two years and have seen a bunch of climbers fight through a finger injury. This is based on personal experience. What worked for me may not work for you. So listen to your body and act accordingly.
I quit my job a couple of months back, saved up some cash and decided to hone my climbing skills the next 6 months, live the dream dirtbag life. Week one, I was down with a pulley injury. My left index was strained from pulling the loop on my bouldering shoes over and over again for every burn and then crimping with the strained finger. (I would've never believed this could cause a pulley injury before it happened to me. Use different fingers to wear your shoe, especially on full climbing days when your putting your shoes on so many times) I had all these long climbing trips planned and it was super depressing. I stopped climbing for a week and got it diagnosed by a friend who is a sports physio. He confirmed that it was an A2 pulley injury and it would require at least 2 months of rest to recover completely.
A2 pulley rupture is the most common finger injury. Pulleys are the bands that hold the tendons close to the bone. Generally, it's just a minor rupture which takes 2-3 weeks to recover completely. But if you hear an audible pop it's probably torn and would take 2-3 months to recover completely. A minor rupture can turn into a tear easily if you even load it slightly. Get it diagnosed by a proper sports physio.
I cant go for more than a week without climbing. So that weekend I was at the climbing gym belaying, talking to people, feeling miserable. And then a friend goes, 'Dude, Tommy Caldwell climbed the dawn wall without a finger. I'm pretty sure you can climb 6s without using the injured finger'. I was intrigued and desperate to climb. I just needed some logical point to convince myself that it was going to be okay to climb. Looking back, I was being stupid. So I taped up my finger and got on a 6a and tried not to use the injured finger. Realised that it was completely okay if the finger doesn't bend. So started trying harder stuff and projects. But when I was pushing grades, or when I was tired and pumped or when going for a dyno I use the finger by mistake and the recovery time goes up drastically.
The next day I taped up a wooden ice cream stick to the finger so it doesn't bend at all, even by mistake and I got on some really easy stuff at the gym. Routes that are 3-4 grades below my limit. Climbed laps on some really easy stuff and started making progress slowly. I realized crimps were way easier with 4 fingers when compared to sloppers or arete compression moves. Asked a bunch of my friends to try it with 4 fingers and they had the same experience. (Stay away from crimpy stuff for the first whole month. It's easy to crimp with 4 fingers but it can also cause another pulley injury) After 2-3 weeks of really easy climbing, started progressing to climbs just below my limit and started climbing outdoors.
Make sure to sand down the stick so that there aren’t any sharp edges on it. This works if you’ve injured a index or the pinky. Might be harder if it’s the middle or the ring finger. The other fingers probably aren’t used to taking your body weight without the injured one and the last thing you’d want is another injured finger. Remember to take it really slow, be patient and enjoy climbing easier stuff. Stop immediately if you even feel minor pain in any finger. The safest options when you first go outdoors after the injury are cracks and slabs. But you can’t do jams with the stick so make sure the route has clean jams all the way and there’s no crimping involved using the injured hand. Always remind yourself that that one last burn on your project is not worth ruining 3 months of climbing.
A friend told me that research shows recovery is generally faster when you keep doing activities that don't worsen the injury. The more blood flow in the area, the faster it recovers. I read up on this and found a few blogs which state the same thing.
Once you get used to climbing with 4 fingers you can start projecting stuff. But make sure it's not super finger intensive. I got my first 7A lead and my first V6 boulder problem while I was recovering from the pulley injury. Select your projects carefully and you should be able to push your limits even during the recovery period. Most people in the crag might either think that you're stupid or badass! Do not let others influence your decisions. They're probably speaking from their experience but everyone's different! Always listen to your body. You know it better than anyone else.
The easiest way to assess the recovery is to press down on the A2 pulley with another finger and see if it’s hurting. I measured the recovery by pressing down on a handwash with just the finger and see how far I could go down on it without any discomfort or pain. After a month you should feel the pain ease down drastically. Wait till the pain goes away completely. And then you can start climbing without the stick. Tape up the finger (X or H taping) and then climb on routes or boulders that doesn’t have any crimps for the first 2 weeks. Then start using easier crimps and work your way on to harder stuff. Remember to always listen to your body. One mistake could set you back by months and all the effort will go to waste. Keep reminding yourself that that one last burn on your project is not worth ruining 3 months of climbing.