Dealing with injuries

A professional dance career is always marred with injuries. It is an inevitability that every dancer must deal with. It can be incredibly frustrating to deal with injuries and the recovery thereafter. Most dancers struggle to cope with the swath of free time that they are left with. The psychological implication of an injury can often be more taxing on one’s mental health than the actual physical side effects. In the competitive backdrop of ballet, injuries are oftentimes viewed as a weakness and therefore many dancers push through their pain to continue with practice and rehearsals. Perhaps the ‘no pain, no gain’ mentality plays a role here. For dancers, injuries signify more than just physical discomfort and pain; for some, it could mean a loss of momentum of a burgeoning career or even identity crisis. 

Types of injuries:

There are two types of injuries that dancers experience- Acute or Chronic. Acute injuries are a result of single occurrence trauma such as sprained ankles, fracture, or broken bones. On the other hand, chronic injuries are injuries that develop over an extended period of time such as Sesamoiditis, Achilles tendonitis, Plantar Fasciitis, and Talar compression syndrome. This could be a consequence of improper technique or excessive exercise. 

The majority of overused injuries among dancers involve ankle, leg, foot, or lower back. The following injuries are common among dancers:

  • Hip injuries- Snapping hip syndrome, hip impingement, labral tears, hip flexor tendonitis, hip bursitis, and sacroiliac joint dysfunction.
  • Foot and ankle injuries- Achilles tendonitis, trigger toe, and ankle impingement.
  • Knee injuries- Patellofemoral pain syndrome.
  • Stress fractures- Metatarsals, tibia, sesamoids, and lumbar spine.
  • Other injuries- Arthritis in the knee, hip, ankle, and foot.

Being able to identify and distinguish between muscle soreness and grievous injury is crucial to administer the right treatment and rehabilitation techniques. Symptomatic, repetitive pain can be an indication that you may have suffered an injury and they can be:

  • Consistent pain that is felt at the beginning of an activity.
  • Pain that increases with intensive/non-intensive movement.
  • Pain that results in shifting of weight or compensation of movements.

The physiological impact of an injury is a reaction to mechanical and chemical changes in the body tissues which occurs due to localized tissue damage after an injury. It is often followed by redness, swelling, pain, and heat. Physiological pain represents itself in the form of aches, superficial pain, throbbing pain, neural pain, and deep pain. Any pain should not be ignored as it may lead to more extensive tissue damage thereby prolonging recovery time. 

The psychological side effect of injury can be denial, anger, emotional numbness, anxiety, and even depression. It is vital for dancers to adopt a constructive, holistic approach to injury management. A negative state of mind is a hindrance to the recovery process and it can lead to withdrawal among individuals.

Coping with injuries:

A standardised care procedure for injury is RICE- Rest, Ice, Compression, and Elevate. Resting and icing the affected area helps reduce swelling, bleeding, muscle spasms, and pain. Once you get injured, immediately stop dancing and rest the impacted tissue. Following this, ice should be applied within 5 minutes of an injury and it should be applied for at least  20 minutes. Ice should not be applied directly onto the skin as it may burn the skin. Instead, use an ice pack or place a  towel as a protective layer between the ice and the skin. After icing, apply compression on the injury by using a bandage, tube grip, strapping, or air splinting. It aids in minimising the swelling. Care should be taken to ensure that the bandage is tight enough to prevent swelling but not enough to stop blood flow. With compression bandage in place, the injured area must be kept elevated above the heart level.

Injury management is very important and dancers must consult a therapist to design a personalised recovery plan. Depending on the severity and type of injury, you would need a specific program to maintain your level of muscular fitness. A therapist can manually release tension from muscles through subtle soft tissue manipulation as well as recommend specific strengthening and stretching exercises to initiate the healing process. It’s important to follow through with the recovery program to avoid running into the same injuries. Improper healing can yield in a chronic injury. 

While recuperating physically, it’s crucial to take care of your mental health to avoid falling into the traps of depression. Here are some tips to keep yourself motivated through the recovery journey:

  • Get realistic– Every injury is an opportunity to learn something about the body and how to train in a more optimal way. Recovery is a long-haul process and doing things the right way matters. While the general expectation is that one would be able to train at the same level post-injury, it might not necessarily be true for everyone. You might have to adopt a modified training class to avoid aggravating your injury. Post-injury, the focus should be on not just healing but also on gaining more awareness about your own body and understanding its limitations.
  • Nutrition is important– This is an important part of the recovery process that often gets ignored. Eating well will help you regain your strength more steadily and heal your injuries more rapidly. Good nutrition and hydration will speed your muscle recovery. Stay away from alcohol and caffeine as they can dehydrate the body and lead to energy crashes. Instead, opt for herbal tea to aid healing and reduction of swelling and pain. 
  • Don’t isolate yourself– Injuries can be frustrating to deal with but isolating yourself during the recovery process can aggravate loneliness and anxiety. Professional dancers tend to equate injury to weakness; this perception manifests itself in the form of anger and resentment towards the body. They feel like their bodies have betrayed them and this can lead to them being withdrawn and isolated. If you feel like you are falling into this rabbit hole, take the initiative to go out and get involved in different activities. Learn a new skill, master a new technique, or get a new hobby. You can also get involved in the backstage activities of the dance rehearsals and help out with costumes and lighting. Being injured does not mean you are out of the team. So be a team player and cheer your friends on. 
  • Don’t draw a comparison– As tempting as it may, don’t compare your journey with others. Someone in your troupe might have recovered from an injury within weeks but it doesn’t necessarily mean that it will happen to you too. Everyone’s body is different, every injury is different, and everyone’s coping mechanism is different. Drawing parallel with someone else will set up unrealistic expectations about your own recovery. The relevant thing is to be optimistic and go through the process organically, at one’s own pace. 

An injury doesn’t stop you from being an exceptional dancer. Injury is just a minor impediment of your career. It cannot be emphasized enough how important it is to work with your body and not against it. A big part of physical rehabilitation is correcting the training technique that caused the injury. Use the downtime of the rehab process to reconnect with yourself and assess your techniques and training schedule to understand how you can come back stronger, better, and more resilient.