July 26, 2009— -- As more gyms along American highways offer faux rock-climbing experiences to would-be adventurers, more climbing injuries are turning up in American emergency rooms, researchers say.
The most common injuries are fractures, sprains, and strains that occur in the lower extremities -- particularly the foot and ankle -- according to Dr. Lara McKenzie, of the Center for Research Injury and Policy at Nationwide Children's Hospital in Columbus, Ohio.
She and colleagues reported their findings online in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.
Most of the injuries were caused by falls, McKenzie said, indicating that patients, who are typically restrained by a harness or who go bouldering (meaning to climb a little ways without a harness) land feet-first when they miss a climbing hold.
Although rock climbing was once regarded as an extreme sport, that perception is changing.
"There are a lot of people who are participating in rock climbing, and it's evolved from an extreme sport reserved for adrenaline junkies, to people who … are doing it recreationally," she observed.
In fact, indoor climbing facilities are becoming more common, and climbing walls are nearly ubiquitous on college campuses. About 9 million people go rock climbing every year, she said, even though the sport carries an inherent risk of falls and stress-related injuries.
To track changes in the number of injuries from the sport, the researchers conducted a retrospective analysis using data from the National Electronic Injury Surveillance System (NEISS) for all ages from 1990 through 2007.
They found that 40,282 patients were treated in emergency departments for climbing-related injuries over the 18-year period. That amounts to 2,237 injuries annually – but the total increased by 63 percent over the study period.
Men were much more likely than women to get hurt, sustaining 72 percent of all injuries, while climbers of both sexes between 20 and 39 accounted for more than half of the injuries.
The most common injury involved the ankle (19.2 percent), with about two thirds of those being sprains and strains.