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Rock Climbing for Rehabilitation

Photo: David Woodman

The benefits of climbing for its practitioners are well known: improved strength, dexterity, and cardiovascular conditioning, not to mention the mental components such as improved self-confidence and the warm and fuzzy feeling of being part of the climbing community. All these aspects are great for building up an individual, but what about helping to build someone up that may not be at optimal health? There are plenty of people out there who suffer from various conditions that impair their mental and physical capabilities such as traumatic brain injuries, amputations, spinal cord injuries, and mental disorders. Can climbing help the people that suffer from such conditions? In short, the answer is yes, it most definitely can. Rock climbing as rehabilitation is still a relatively new thing, but it’s steadily gaining traction as the trailblazers of the practice continue to showcase positive results.

One of the people at the forefront of this unique field is Dr Elissa Zakrasek, a physical medicine and rehabilitation doctor at the VA Palo Alto Health Care System in California. She specializes in spinal cord injuries and has recently conducted a study that found rock climbing to offer a “unique” range of physical, social, and psychological benefits to those with disabilities. The results of the study are in the process of being submitted for publication which, if accepted, will help bring the rehabilitation benefits of rock climbing into the limelight.

Zakrasek’s study was divided into three parts, the first had 17 participants engage in adaptive climbing over a ten-week period, followed by an anonymous online survey regarding their experiences. The second part revolved around researchers observing and documenting all climbing related injuries or health concerns of the participants over twelve climbing sessions. The third and final part of the study followed three participants and measured their perceived physical exertion throughout the climbing sessions.

Across the board, the participants benefitted from the physical and psychological effects of climbing, offering feedback such as “It kicked my but […] it takes me to the extreme without overdoing it.” Another stated that the climbing sessions were “the one thing I look forward to all week!” The results showed that the participants universally enjoyed the experience and would all be interested in continuing adaptive climbing sessions.

Safety was a principle concern in the study, with traditional climbing systems augmented to fit the greater needs of the disabled participants. Such precautions included a back-up belay system, so each participant would have two rope supports opposed to the usual one, as well as disability-specific instruction for the climbing gym staff who helped facilitate the study. Zakrasek was confident that with these measures in place, the risk of serious injury for the participants was reduced to a miniscule level.

With the recent success of her work, Zakrasek hopes to continue her efforts with bigger studies which would include larger sample populations of participants over longer periods of time. The participants would be under more controlled settings over the course of the study to measure such things as grip strength, range of motion, and VO2 max, as well as comparing the benefits gained from climbing to the benefits of other sports such as cycling.

Dr. Zakrasek isn’t the only one working towards the goal of having climbing emerge as a rehabilitation practice. On the other side of the world, another pioneer has been working towards that same goal for almost ten years. Sophie Charles is an experienced rock climbing instructor that has partnered with the Castle Climbing Centre in London, where she has crafted a series of climbing sessions designed to help people living with certain neurological disorders such as cerebral palsy, autism, brain stem issues, and traumatic brain injuries.

Her history as a climber has given her a keen understanding of the hand eye coordination, balance, strength, and sensory awareness that climbing develops in its practitioners, and she has made it her mission to help the disabled reap these same benefits. Since the foundational movements of climbing are often repeated consistently once learned, the sport naturally encourages something called neuroplasticity, which is the brain’s ability to reorganize its pathways in response to certain factors, like the environment. A skill vital for rock climbers, but even more so for people undergoing mental rehabilitation.

“Most folks would benefit from these activities but post-TBI they are particularly vital because they engage functions and skills that have been injured,” says Madeleine Sayko, co-founder of Cognitive Compass, a US-based company that aims to help people reintegrate and thrive in the workplace after suffering TBIs. “The tendency for many with TBI is to withdraw which does not stimulate cognitive ability.”

A prime example of how Charles’s program is helping can be found in her work with Harry Coughlan, a 29 year old born with agenesis of the corpus callosum, which means the fibers that join the two halves of his brain were never fully developed. While Harry still struggles with his condition, the benefits that climbing have brought him have been substantial. “He had to concentrate, had to sort out left and right, learn how to tie a safety harness, and had repeated challenges with balance and coordination,” says his father John. “Climbing brings greater physical agility and general self-confidence. He gets great satisfaction and enjoyment from it.”

While Charles isn’t a doctor herself, her program has been recognized as a legitimate practice by those in the field. “Steady, controlled, repetitive action is very positive and it needs to be goal orientated,” says neuropsychologist Dr June Gilchrist, a trustee of the charity Headway, an organization that works to improve patients’ quality of life after brain injury. “Things like this climbing course can be lifelines for people because it combines goal-orientated challenge and achievement with the positivity and interaction with is so vitally important for rehab.”

The impact of programs like the ones started by Dr Elissa Zakrasek and Sophie Charles is taking hold. More and more of these programs have begun to materialize. Craig Hospital in Denver has added rock climbing to its recreational therapy program for TBI patients. Other programs across the country such as the National Sports Center for the Disabled and Adaptive Adventures have done the same. It’s a trend that will undoubtedly continue to grow as the results of these programs and studies begin to emerge in more mainstream circles. But until then we’ll just have to keep spreading the word and promoting the sport we all love so much. Climbing’s ability to change lives for the better is limitless, and everyone should have access to that potential.

If you want to dig a little deeper on your own here are the sources I used for this post:

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