We’ve all had to deal with injury at some point in our career. Some of us are luckier than others and only deal with minor set backs like a slightly pulled muscle that takes a few days or weeks to heal. Others deal with major traumas that require surgeries and months or even years of healing time. I myself have had a range of injuries and learned a lot about the process of recovery over the years. I decided to try and put what I know about recovering from injury into words. In this series of blogs, I will be talking about the process from a professional dancer perspective, although this perspective could be applied to any kind of athletics. Part 1 will cover injury types, when to see a doctor, and types of doctors.
Injury Types & Why They Happen
There are two main types of injuries: acute and chronic. Acute injuries are injuries that happen suddenly and can require immediate medical attention. Things like a break, sprain, strain, or tendon snap fall into this category. Chronic injuries are injuries that happen slowly overtime from repeatedly performing a particular motion. Tendinitis, stress fractures, or bursitis would fall into this category.
There are many reasons injuries occur. With acute injuries, it’s usually a onetime accident. But Chronic injuries are different. With dancers, we tend to end up with chronic injuries not just from repetition, but repetition of an incorrect movement pattern. Incorrect movement patterns can develop from compensation from an acute injury that was not properly treated, wearing ill fitting dance shoes, not receiving proper technical training, or not paying proper attention to your body while dancing.
When To See a Doctor
When you suffer an initial injury the first decision you need to make is if you need to go see a doctor. The second decision is what kind of doctor do you need to see. Going to a doctor is an important first step for determining how severe an injury is and a proper course of treatment. This step is especially important for anyone who has never been injured before because it will put the injury into perspective and help set you on the right course for recovery.
In general, going to see a doctor vs. not is the better decision. For acute injuries, you should go see someone as soon as possible, especially if pain persists for more than 24-48 hours. Chronic injuries on the other hand can be a bit more difficult to gauge. With chronic injuries, when it comes to actually going to see a doctor, most of us put it off until we are either in too much pain or have been in pain for too long. This is not necessarily a bad way for determining if we need to go see a doctor, but if you are questioning whether you should or not, you probably need to. It is always better to go sooner rather than later so there is less risk of the injury becoming debilitating.
What Type Of Doctor Should You See?
When choosing what type of doctor to see it really depends on what you feel you need and what worked for you in past experiences. If this is your first time being injured then utilizing the recommendations of your teachers, coaches, or other movement professionals is a good place to start. For myself, I usually go see a chiropractor or massage therapist as my first choice because 1) I can do a lot of the PT related work myself, 2) I have a chiropractor and massage therapist I trust, and 3) most of the injuries I deal with are chronic and occurred in reaction to an old acute injury from when I was 13 years old.
As far as determining the type of doctor you need to see, there are a few options. You have general practitioners, sports medicine doctors, orthopedic surgeons, physical therapists, or chiropractors to choose from as possible options. General practitioners or family medicine doctors are the least specialized of this list but can offer guidance with basic sprains, strains, or breaks. They can also help determine if you need someone more specialized and point you in the right direction if you are unsure what specialized route to take. Sports medicine doctors specialize in sports related injuries. Orthopedic surgeons are also very specialized and usually focus on a small area of the body (foot and ankle, hip and knee, etc.). Physical therapists have you perform exercises or stretches to help improve mobility after surgery or injury. Chiropractors perform manipulations and adjustments that address skeletal and muscle alignment issues that keep the body from functioning properly.
In general, good questions to ask when deciding which doctor you should see are “has this person worked with dancers before?” and “does this person specialize in musculoskeletal body mechanics?” If a medical professional is good enough at their job, it won’t necessarily matter if they have specifically worked with dancers or not. But it does matter whether or not they are some type of movement specialist. For example, an oncologist is not going to be able to give good advice to a dancer that is suffering from back pain due to overuse. While their initial advice of rest until the pain goes away is not inaccurate, it is incomplete. A movement or musculoskeletal specialist is going to be able to provide much more complete information than someone who’s specialty is disease and illness. Once you have found a doctor you trust, you will have completed the first step on the road to recovery.
I hope this helps clear up some initial confusion when it comes to injuries and the recovery process. Stay tuned for future blogs where I will continue through the process of recovering from injury based on my own personal experience. See you soon!
For those who don't know me, my name is Jessica Woodman and welcome to my blog, Barre Fly. I'm a professional dancer, teacher, and fitness instructor based in the SF Bay Area. You can read my full bio in the About section of this website. Over the last few years I have spent a lot of time furthering my education through various certifications, a college degree, and other experiences. At the same time, the company I danced with for five years folded and caused me to rethink what I want out of my career as a dancer. Especially, now that I am no longer in the beginnings of my career (dirty thirty, here we come!). Now that my schooling is coming to an end, at least for the moment, I've got some extra time and thought I'd start a blog to talk about the things I've learned over the course of my career. While this is mostly a cathartic exercise for myself, I hope those of you taking the time to read this are, at the very least, semi entertained.
I decided to start with my journey of finding a cross training method that helped reshape my dancing and heal injuries that were anywhere from a few weeks to many years old. Injuries are nothing new in the dance world as almost every dancer I know has had to overcome something. Through my own experiences and watching others, I've come to the conclusion that it is possible to overcome almost any injury with the right cross training and a willingness to let go of the dancer you were before the injury occurred. For myself, this has been a bit of a process because the first severe injury I had was when I was 13. Being so young I had not yet figured out exactly who I was as an artist, so letting go of the dancer I used to be wasn't the problem. Instead it was about letting go of the dancer I wanted to be and that has been a very long journey.
Until more recently than I care to admit, I continued to struggle with wanting to be a different dancer than what I ultimately became. I don't mean wanting to be a jazz dancer and instead becoming a ballet dancer. I mean wanting to be a ballet dancer and feeling as though my body was holding me back from doing that at the level I had deemed "acceptable" in my head. Part of the reason for feeling this way is because of my approach to dealing with my injuries. Working around and working through an injury are two very different things. When we work around an injury we develop ways to physically and mentally avoid the problem. Unfortunately, this causes more harm because it allows for other physical imbalances to occur and increases the likelihood that we will be injured again. Another byproduct of this, at least for myself, is that it makes being injured part of our identity. Our pain becomes a sort of badge of honor that we convince ourselves makes us better artists.
Over the years I tried many different cross training methods, from swimming to weight lifting to Pilates. While I would get ok results, nothing worked well enough to make me want to continue doing it for very long. I discovered the GYROTONIC® method through a chance conversation with a fellow dancer. Usually, you can guess a dancers training background based on stylistic choices and how they approach their technique. This dancer had a way of approaching her work with such calm intention and quality that it was immediately apparent she had something in her background that was different from the norm. In talking to her, I learned she had been practicing "gyro" for a few years and suggested I try it. It also just so happened that she knew of a trainer who had just opened a studio close to where I was living at the time. I'm not a superstitious person by any means, but I sort of took it as a sign and set up a session.
My first "gyro" session was interesting. It was a very different approach to movement than I had ever experienced and required a level of concentration similar to ballet. But, it "advantageously" lacked the anxiety and desire for perfection that can accompany ballet depending on the approach. The prevailing idea in Gyrotonic is that movement should heal the body, not hurt it. While no dance teacher would tell you to hurt yourself, there is still an underlying idea that you should work through pain no matter what. In some cases, pain is superficial and you should push through it to the best of your abilities. But, I think those cases are more rare than what a lot of dancers and directors/teachers like to think. I walked out of that first session feeling better than I had in a long time and knew I was going to continue coming back.
As I continued with weekly and bi-weekly sessions I began to notice a change not just in my technique, but also in the actual shape of my leg muscles. Over the years my quads had become so over developed that my hamstrings and glutes were almost useless. Normal glute strengthening exercises like squats didn't work because my glutes would not fire and I would end up doing the entire exercise with only my quads. While this might sound kind of funny (I think it does), it is actually a really common problem among dancers and even non-dancers. This can cause back, knee, and/or hip issues which can limit a dancer's ability to progress or even maintain their technique long term. I was already having back and hip issues from compensating for the ankle I had injured at 13 and was starting to question how much longer I could dance professionally before my body gave out. However, it didn't take long for me to realize that each session made my body function better and hurt less.
As I continued with my sessions and eventually getting certified in the work, my dancing continued to change for the better. Not only did my technique improve but I felt myself start to expand as an artist in ways that only happen when you are not in pain and not feeling as though your body is betraying you. The idea that to be a good artist means we must suffer is, in my opinion (if you'll excuse the language), horse shit. I don't know a single person who does their best work when they are struggling mentally or physically. This is not to say that we should avoid being uncomfortable, but that we need tools that allow us to work through real healing processes that make us stronger and smarter in the end. For dancers, good cross training can help us heal and appreciate what we and our bodies are truly capable of. I feel better now than I have in years, and now when things hurt I know the pain is temporary and that I can fix it. And that has made all the difference.