Being an attentive belayer can backfire later in life


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Trad climber
Wolfeboro, NH
Topic Author's Original Post - Dec 28, 2014 - 05:27am PT
I have always considered myself a vigilant belayer. I rarely, if ever take my eye off the leader, and after 50 years of straining my neck, looking up,
I'm paying a rather severe price.

If your an older climber with unexplained, unrelenting headaches, you may have this condition:

I've been plagued by pretty constant headaches for years, but in the last year, they have been much worse, accompanied by nausea. In fact, for the past 2 weeks, I've been bed ridden a lot.

It took many doctors visits, over many years to finally get a diagnosis, which is finally conclusive. The doctors are quite amazed at my range of neck motion, which they say is greater than many younger patients they see.
It appears that all that looking up, on vertical climbs has compressed, and destroyed my disc, right in the area where a group of nerves exit the spine; including the Greater Occipital Nerve.

If this nerve is impinged by arthritis etc. your in for trouble.

It took a long time to finally find a doctor who could give an accurate diagnosis. There are some treatments, ( radio frequency ablation), offering temporary relief.

I just wanted to throw this out there to the older climbers, who may be frustrated with similar symptoms, as that constant straining, looking up, over many years can be detrimental to your health.

Trad climber
dancin on the tip of god's middle finger
Dec 28, 2014 - 05:34am PT
though inattentive, i'm an attractive belayer.

i am screwed, too.

Social climber
Seattle, WA
Dec 28, 2014 - 05:44am PT

Sorry. Never heard of such a thing, but it makes sense.
all in jim

Dec 28, 2014 - 05:55am PT
Oh man sorry to hear that. I hope you find some relief from the headaches.

I have a lot of neck pain and stiffness as well. I am certain it's from years of belaying. Now if I just look up for a minute or two my neck and shoulders start to stiffen up.

So happy for all the belay glasses on the market. They really solve the problem. I just wish I'd used them starting 30 years ago.

Now I preach to my younger climbing partners to start wearing them now. I implore them, tell them horror stories of old climbers with fuked up necks, but they don't care.

Trad climber
Wolfeboro, NH
Topic Author's Reply - Dec 28, 2014 - 05:55am PT
These 2 guys-both in there 70's, lay flat on their backs, when possible, while belaying.
Joe Kelsey and Jim Donini in the Wind Rivers
Joe Kelsey and Jim Donini in the Wind Rivers
Credit: steveA
tinker b

the commonwealth
Dec 28, 2014 - 06:00am PT
i think i have the same thing. it was at its worst when i was riding a bike that was too big for me and i was straining my neck to look forward.
i constantly stretch and rub my neck to try to avoid it. when i realized i was bedridden once a week for a month from bike riding, i splurged on a new bike. i still get the headaches, but not nearly as often.
i am small, so i have always been an attentive belayer, since most lead falls send me up the wall.

Trad climber
Wolfeboro, NH
Topic Author's Reply - Dec 28, 2014 - 06:17am PT
Just want to mention that the diagnosis for this condition is quite simple, fairly painless and conclusive.

The doctor, or pain specialist, injects a nerve block, ( novacaine), at the site of the greater occipital nerve. If your headache completely disappears within a minute or less--there is your diagnosis. It is quite dramatic.

Unfortunately, once the nerve block wears off, within hours, your back to square one. There are a few options for longer term relief, once the diagnosis is confirmed.
Gnome Ofthe Diabase

Out Of Bed
Dec 28, 2014 - 06:50am PT
I am so glad that others have posted, that said the spine and nervous system all join in a clump at the base of your neck.
C1- C6 some say seven. the need for a fusion, an attachment that spans from good bone to good bone spanning the bad is not unusual.
the symptoms that drive this bus range from tingle, pins and needle like to cripple ing
and yes blinding pain.
Many good docs try alternative procedures before resorting to Spinal Fusion.
Spinal Fusion sounds a looks bad but is not so!!
Modern techniques, going forward, the down time ten years ago was ten days! Recovery was only a matter of physical therapy mixed with trepidation . . .
Before surgery pulling HARD (.10 & .11 + harder) had led to a head ache, ringing in the ears, and crushing fatigue.
I recommend getting the opinion of two or more separate hospital options.
My first go was with a well known NYC football doc who found my bone density and smaller bone structure concerning.
He sent me to a specialist that led to the diagnosis of not a Pinched neck but a broken one.
The thing that was of a concern to me was long term wear.
Would the fusion wear out? the condition get worse?

I am very aware of the physical process Work : the result of repetition on a single point.
(Indicating that I was and still am a thinking person helped humanize the ordeal)

When the results left some still noticeable pins & needles,
I was shown that the fusion screw in the 'lowest',(neck bent to look up , belaying,)
position was pressing again on the sensitive spot and that given time the repetitive use will strengthen and the pain ,discomfort lessend at the bruised sight .

Good luck.
I was told for years that my shooting pain could be resolved with "trigger point" Injections or other temporary procedures (to lessen the symptoms,) was what I needed.
That was wrong,t I had an instability (A crack in the vertebrae ) at C5-C6 !
This was after six years of being told that was not the case!
My search for what had happened to me? Made me think that I may have done the lions share of the damage when I was (as compared to climbing) at rest only using some not all my muscles to support activities, like belaying, looking up and being in a bad posture every time for all those years.
Add to that falling out of the back of a raised cargo van, onto my face (Face Plant) with a weight in my hands and I was a good candidate for spinal fusion.
The surgery was, ten years ago. Some lingering sleep issues but all in all,A very good experience!

and I tell any one who will listen to build up the neck muscles!


Don't break your neck!

But never . . .

Get down from there'!

Happy new year!,

Trad climber
Marcus McCoy from Nevada City
Dec 28, 2014 - 08:16am PT
Ewwwww. I fractured my occipital condyle too a while back. I tried those belay glasses one time at the gym and they were pretty awesome, perhaps I am doomed to end up using them?

Mountain climber
The Other Monrovia- CA
Dec 28, 2014 - 10:34am PT
Wouldn't a pair of Google glasses work better, especially if they're showing you what the leader is seeing from his lapel camera?

Big Wall climber
Terrapin Station
Dec 28, 2014 - 10:57am PT
Yikes, I'm only 54, but I too have spent many many years staring up at leaders. I also have headaches, but not severe.

My one saving grace is that all things considered, I've spent more than my share of time leading. That's good right??? Heh heh


Trad climber
Poughkeepsie, NY
Dec 28, 2014 - 11:02am PT
Sorry to hear about this Steve.

I think I may be suffering from an analogous problem---I have a pinched nerve in my neck that radiates pain and occasional tingling down my left arm. Not from belaying though; at least I don't think so, since I can tilt my head back without any issues, it is when I tilt my head sideways to the left that the symptoms occur.

It has been bad enough recently that I've stopped climbing and upper-body exercising for the past month or so. I'm starting a round to PT on Tuesday, and am taking varying amounts of ibuprofen depending on the day.

Trad climber
Oct 5, 2017 - 08:56am PT
I am resurrecting this in hopes of finding some relief. I was misdiagnosed with and treated for post concussion syndrome and migraine after a wake boarding accident on 7/2.

After FINALLY being able to get in to see a neurologist, it is likely that I have occipital neuralgia. Three shots of nerve block into the back of my skull is making me a happier person right now, but I am wondering what treatments I should be doing. I currently see a shiatsu practitioner and just started seeing a chiro. I also have belay specs, now.

I have lived with so much pain for the last few months. Any advice moving forward and getting back to climbing is appreciated.

Trad climber
Ouray, Colorado
Oct 5, 2017 - 09:10am PT
A number of years ago when I was around fifty I woke up after a climbing trip with a slightly stiff and sore neck. I went to a gym later that day and surprisingly could not curl even a five pound weight with my right hand. Conditions worsened and when I couldn't even shave myself I went to a neurologist.
It turned out that I had a bone spur in my neck that was pinching a nerve. I received a cortisone shot and the symptons gradually subsided. I had what some call " belayer's neck" caused by years of looking up while climbing/belaying.
I have been careful since then and have had no recurrence.

Trad climber
Portland, Oregon
Oct 5, 2017 - 09:50am PT
Holy baby jebus, if all the sh#t that could or is going to happen to you as you age were put in an iPhone app people would kill themselves when they turned 50.

Ice climber
hartford, ct
Oct 5, 2017 - 09:59am PT
After a severe neck injury when I was around 6 I had been told by many doctors back then that I'd likely be in severe pain for life.

What helped me 100x over any medications or chiro manipulations was long distance biking and hiking with a heavy pack.

The biking thing strengthens the muscles in your whole upper back just holding your head up. I try to ride with a pretty high stem so I'm not in in the full-tuck position. Figure about 45 degrees so I'm not really straining to look ahead.

The hiking thing just seems to stretch everything out. I've got a well-adjusted pack and carry ~60-75 in it consisting of ropes and water most of the time.

YMMV of course. But I'm on no meds and feel good 95% of the time.

Once or twice a year if I really piss it off, cervical traction with a 20# water bag does wonders. You can rig it easily inside and it only takes 20-30 minutes a day.


Social climber
Wilds of New Mexico
Oct 5, 2017 - 10:08am PT
I'm seeing more and more belay glasses out there at the crags, they make sense to me.

Andrzej Citkowicz far away from Poland
Oct 5, 2017 - 10:12am PT
While belaying it is good time to take pictures of flowers, rocks, and such.

Problem solved!


Trad climber
Poughkeepsie, NY
Oct 5, 2017 - 10:59am PT
Personal update: my neck issues were almost totally resolved by PT. I do use belay glasses, although not always outside. I had already found that effective belaying with double ropes required you to look at the ropes right in front of you and not at the climber, and after doing this for a while I realized that you understand an enormous amount about what the leader is doing by just watching the ropes. So I believe I can belay as attentively and effectively as always without always having my neck cranked back.

The PT exercises are simple and take just a few minutes. I do them absolutely religiously every night before I go to bed. I have occasional mild symptoms---no pain, but perhaps a slight tingling---but no ongoing issues.

Trad climber
Ouray, Colorado
Oct 5, 2017 - 11:12am PT
Being an attentive, and having an attentive, belayer and a latter life is more likely.
mouse from merced

Trad climber
The finger of fate, my friends, is fickle.
Oct 5, 2017 - 11:14am PT
Credit: mouse from merced
Unattractive but very attentive, snails never suffer from belayer's neck.

Grey Matter
Oct 5, 2017 - 11:33am PT
I've had belayers neck in the past.
Usually just caused pain looking up.
Sometimes I would get the pinched nerve and pain out towards a shoulder.

I met a guy at New River Gorge who had this problem bad enough that he had a couple neck joints fused. & was still an awesome climber.

Mostly I just look up a lot less now,
& hardly look up at all when just toproping.
Sometimes I use belay glasses, esp for lead belaying. I got a pair that will go over the top of my everyday glasses.

Trad climber
CT, Gunks
Oct 5, 2017 - 12:02pm PT
Splater - Which belay glasses fit well over your regular glasses?

Grey Matter
Oct 5, 2017 - 12:44pm PT
I have the Belayspecs. Metal frame.


Trad climber
Mancos, CO & Bend, OR
Oct 5, 2017 - 12:51pm PT
I too seek a recumbent position when belaying so as to be able to constantly look up at the leader without the pain/discomfort that's otherwise inevitable.

When I translated this behavior to the indoor rock gym, guess what? Staff prohibited same.

I'm not impressed with the discretion nor intelligence of gym staff - for this - and other reasons. In fact, young gym staff at Bend Rock Gym positively distaintful and disrespectful toward geriatric climbers like me. Maybe in their arrogance they hate the idea of climbers the age of their parents/grandparents being capable of participation within their youthful domain. At age 66, I do qualify more and more as a grandparent-equivalency to this whippersnappers at the gym.

P.S. I just proved I am an old curmudgeon. No surprise to anyone who knows me.

Mountain climber
Oct 5, 2017 - 02:03pm PT
Until I got a pair recently, I thought belay glasses were a silly gimmick. I wish I'd realized earlier just how functional and what a neck/health saver they are!

I have the Y&Y Classic, which work super well and can be worn in front of sun glasses (or regular glasses) without any fit problem. I picked these after searching through some online reviews. Stef Davis was NOT making it up when she raved about them.

(Llama Terry, get some)
Ken M

Mountain climber
Los Angeles, Ca
Oct 5, 2017 - 02:08pm PT
Interesting discussion regarding chronic neck issues.

One note of caution: While belaying MAY be a causative factor in SOME people, the presence of neck pathology in a person who belays does not mean that the belaying CAUSED the pathology.

This stuff is relatively complex.

It is actually unlikely that a passive action, such as looking up, would break or damage bones. I'd be much more concerned with even short falls, or other active maneuvers that put stress on the area.

After all, if it were a simple positional issue, I'd think that we'd see a very high rate of this in bicyclists, and as far as I know, we do not.
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