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Physical Therapist Dr. James Lee Helps Rock Climbers Get to the Top

James Inkyu Lee, PT, DPT ’10, FAAOMPT, brings a fresh and targeted approach to physical therapy. He educates and treats people who share his passion for climbing, a sport with a learning curve as steep as Yosemite’s El Capitan.

“But it’s not nearly that frightening,” Dr. Lee laughs. “There is a problem-solving aspect to climbing. The entire body has to work. You have to force your mind to put your body into specific angles. Knowledge of physical therapy is really helpful. Strength is crucial. But to use your strength to solve a problem with specific angles and body tensions to get to the top — that’s good for the mind, body and soul.”

Dr. Lee, who operates Lee Physical Therapy in Chicago’s Lincoln Park, began rock climbing with a fellow classmate while attending the physical therapy program at RFU. He started on indoor climbing walls and over the past decade has scaled his way around the United States and the globe, including Red River Gorge, KY; Joshua Tree, CA; The Chief in Squamish, British Columbia; and on his honeymoon last year, the hidden crags and canyons of South Korea.

After graduating RFU, he undertook a more than four-year-long fellowship with The Manual Therapy Institute. A specialized area of physical therapy, manual therapy offers direct, hands-on treatment aimed at mobilizing joints, releasing nerve tension and targeting muscles that improve motor control. The fellowship, suggested by Assistant Professor Matthew Nuciforo, PT, DPT, also a fellow of the American Academy of Orthopaedic Manual Physical Therapists, gave Dr. Lee a new perspective, improved his clinical skills and helped launch him into the care-for-climbers niche.

“Treating people in my sport is the ultimate high,” he said. “Often, climbers will go see specialists who tell them simply to stop. But they’re not going to stop. It’s very frustrating and they’re in so much pain. I tell a patient: ‘You can actually still climb but you need to modify your climbing.’ Maybe they need to stop grabbing hold in a way that puts too much tension on their fingers. There are different ways to crimp.”

In addition to finger problems, Dr. Lee sees a variety of musculoskeletal issues like low back pain, knee and ankle sprains, neck and shoulder issues, hip flexor strain and more.

“High-level athletes are really good at compensating for underlying weaknesses,” he said. “A lot of injuries I see happen from overuse. Climbing utilizes your entire body and places tension throughout the entire body. You need to keep a really firm, strong tension to your core — your trunk muscles. Because as you’re going for a hold, a loose core causes variables that are difficult to account for.”

Dr. Lee uses social media to help educate climbers and potential patients and to publicize his workshops, including finger injury prevention and wrist/elbow injury prevention. On Instagram he offers videos of weightlifting and cross-training techniques, and strengthening and posture exercises from neck to toes.

“I’m still at the beginning stages of my practice,” Dr. Lee said. “People who engage with my free content on social media may not know me at all. You have to invite them into a relationship through Instagram, Facebook, YouTube and workshops. The people I’m seeing now tell me they came to my finger injury prevention class three years ago.”

Physical therapists are the movement experts in medicine, said Dr. Lee, who has a strong background in treating all orthopedic conditions.

“I really want to help my patients safely manage their condition, modify activities, reduce fear avoidance, take control and be confident with their movement,” he said. “My ultimate goal is to train them out of therapy into full independence.”

Posted April 13, 2020
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