Footlocking killed my knees

Or did it?

Statements like this always makes me wonder, especially when talking about ascent techniques. How long do you spend per day ascending into trees? If I had to guess, maybe about a minute per ascent, let’s say two to be on the safe side and then call it four ascents, which seems reasonable – if you’re not cone picking or the like. So that makes a total of about eight minutes ascending. In terms of exposure time this does not seem terribly long.

So that makes me wonder whether it really is quite that easy or whether it is the whole story.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not arguing this from a pro-footlock position. I am all for improving the ergonomics of how we work, but feel it is important that we don’t stigmatize one technique and turn a blind eye on other practices that are equally bad or even worse with considerably longer exposure times.

Like what?

Well, take harnesses for example. If you look at pics of climbers twenty years ago, one typical thing you will notice is the x-legged stance they are suspended in. This was due to the pressure the harnesses exerted on the hips. I can remember this from my first harness, which was a Willans, this was in 1990, – which did exactly that. I was determined to like the harness, as I thought it was really cool, but in reality hanging in free space was actually quite uncomfortable, with lots of pressure on the hips that really squeezed your legs together. One of the things people did to reduce this pressure was to use rigid spreader bars between the attachment points.

So I think ill-adjusted harnesses and non-ergonomic harness design are one of the factors that take its toll over the years.

X-legged stance in old-style climbing harness. Image courtesy of Honey Brothers.

Another one is working on spikes. My experience working on spikes is that, especially in hard woods, you have quite high impacts when inserting the spikes into the wood and also when using long spikes you are creating a long lever arm, pivoting over the spike to the shaft and acting upon the knee. Conceivably over the years this may well be a factor in wear and tear to the knees and hips. It’ll be interesting to see in what direction the design of climbing spikes will develop in the future and whether they will take the body shape into account to a higher degree… we shall see.

Blunt cutting tools, e.g. handsaws is another one. Or one-handed use of top-handle chainsaws. Apart for obvious reasons why this is not a very good idea (despite what other people may tell you, putting you had in a running chain is messy. Been doing it for years and nothing has ever happened? Only has to happen once… Keep both hands on the saw and you have greatly reduced this risk), there is also the issue of long-term damage, such as wear and tear to the carpal tunnel and/ or tendonitis.

One interesting realization for me was understanding the difference between Repetitive Strain Injuries (RSI) and Musculoskeletal Disorders (MSD). Thanks, Yvonne, for pointing this one out to me.

Here is a definition of the two conditions:

Musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) are injuries or disorders of the muscles, nerves, tendons, joints, cartilage, an disorders of the nerves, tendons, muscles and supporting structures of the upper and lower limbs, neck, and lower back that are caused, precipitated or exacerbated by sudden exertion or prolonged exposure to physical factors such as repetition, force, vibration, or awkward posture.

Repetitive strain injury (RSI) is a condition where pain and other symptoms occur in an area of the body which has done repetitive tasks (often the arms or hands). Repetitive strain means strain related to actions which are frequently repeated.

Without claiming to understand this all in great detail, I did however find it interesting to understand that we are dealing, speaking in general terms, with MSDs rather than RSIs, which are quite specific to very repetitive motions, such a clicking a mouse when working with a computer or similar activities. The type of long-term damage that may occur linked to tree work is probably in the more general MSD group.

For more information on this topic, a good starting point is the dedicated website of the UK’s Health and Safety Executive.

One of the difficulties in these discussions is that we have no control groups.

When considering long-term wear and tear it is essential to take a holistic view, which includes what this person did – and does – before and besides tree work. Maybe someone now working as an arborist started up as a landscape gardner and damaged his back carrying around heavy paving stones – and maybe another person was a very keen cyclist or weight lifter in younger years and used to train very hard for their sport, incurring wear and tear along the way. These persons may now be convinced that they are suffering from conditions caused by their professional life, when in actual fact the truth is more complex – and the seeds of the damage were planted long before they even considered a career in arboriculture.

Personally, and I have written this before, I find it all comes down to balance. This involves many aspects of my life, such as diet, lifestyle, emotional form, physical as well as intellectual stimulus etc. Time and again I come back to climbing and just love it, I find there is nothing better to get me feeling balanced and physically at ease. I am not saying that it’s money easily earned, tree work is physically demanding, but by getting exercise besides work you can compensate for some of the strains.

I find regular stretching morning and evening helpful, also I have found exercise on a rowing machine, such as the Concept 2 machines, builds core stability and musculature useful to counteract niggles in the lower back. Exercising on a rowing machine works well for me, it’s low impact and gets all major muscle groups working – and you go as hard as you want. In the same line, I find body-weight training, with devices like TRX,  a good tool to work on specific ailments, like when I damaged the right rotator cuff in my shoulder. Or to sort out the residual stiffness in my foot/ ankle area years after having fractured it in a fall. Or just for an all round work-out to straighten out my body after a day of funky work positioning.

But again, these are merely solutions that I have found work well for me – I am not generalizing by any means. After all, I am stuck with the body I have, with its specific strengths and weaknesses: All my childhood and youth I used to train for competitive swimming, which I believe developed certain muscle groups that later in life served me well for climbing, but on the other hand, I also know that my lower back is prone to stiffness  and is not super-flexible and my knees are also something that over the years have been an issue. I bear these points in mind in the ways in which I work. So based on my history, I have found the strategies I discussed above to be viable solutions, but they may well not be applicable to somebody else with a different biography (and body) – the good news is it is not rocket science to give these matters some thought – and to find out what works for you.

Yes, my injuries I described above were caused by tree work. But I feel it is important that we understand that we are responsible for our bodies and can do something about it to ensure that we don’t wear it out unnecessarily and prematurely, after all, it has to last you a lifetime! I believe if you are able to listen to the needs of your body, to compensate for strains that your professional life brings with it and don’t regularly overdo things, that working as a arborist need not be more harmful that working in an office. In fact… au contraire! A low-activity, sedentary lifestyle with little exercise and highly repetitive work processes is proven to be highly harmful.

I am looking forwards to the findings of a number of studies that various people are conducting in different countries around the world which are looking at different aspects of this topic.