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Choreographing Your Way through Injury and Prevention

By Martha Michael

Dancers with Dance Instructor

What could possibly bring together Olympic ice skater Nancy Kerrigan, NFL running back Rashad Jennings, professional bull rider Bonner Bolton, Mr. T, and Charo?

If you searched TV Guide for the answer, you probably discovered they were contestants on "Dancing with the Stars." But even more surprising than finding common ground among 12 professionals with wildly diverse physical lifestyles is seeing how easily any of them could suffer an injury from dancing. Even a full schedule of triple axels, gridiron tackles or eight-second rides on a Brahma can't prepare you for the specific demands of flex kicks, fish dive lifts, and power step combos.

Some not-so-smooth moves injured singer Normani Kordei right before her final performance on the show this season. And "Real Housewives of Beverly Hills" star Erika Jayne was rushed to surgery just after the last show. Even one of the pros, Maksim Chmerkovskiy, was sidelined from tears in his calf muscle, and a list of injuries over 24 seasons of the show include Dorothy Hamill's spinal injury, rodeo champion Ty Murray's black eye, and volleyball Olympian Misty May-Treanor's torn Achilles tendon.

When Bust a Move is Literal

A University of Washington study found that dance injuries occur as often as those from other athletic endeavors -- even contact sports. Studying the Pacific Northwest Ballet Company in Seattle, researchers found that dancers were injured at a rate of 61 percent over an eight-month period, averaging 10.5 days lost from participation.

"We think ballet dancers are as vulnerable as athletes because ballet is a very pressure-packed activity with a tremendous amount of competition," said Ronald Smith, University of Washington psychology professor and lead author of the study. "Ballet is physically grueling and the fact that other dancers are competing with them adds to the physical stress."

The year-round schedule for dancers may be partly to blame, according to Dance Teacher Magazine. Writer Andrea Marks shares the opinion of physical therapist Heather Heineman, DPT, from the Harkness Center for Dance Injuries at NYU Langone Medical Center.

"In most sports, you have spring warm-up season, then you compete, then you cool down, then you take a break," Heineman says. "You're still exercising, but you're doing different movements."

Marks addresses the prevalence of dance injuries, specifically to the hips, which she refers to as "overachievers," claiming they're the axis for leg movement of all kinds.

Because their art utilizes a full range of hip motion, dancers would benefit from a better understanding of the muscles they need to strengthen to best protect their hip joints. It would serve to both improve their performance and increase their professional longevity, she says.

According to Heineman, excess stress on the hip socket is to be expected, but she says bursitis and labral tears are often the result of poor technique. She believes that when muscles in the pelvic region or in the core are weak or imbalanced, that's when a dancer gets injured.

"We've all seen dancers try to force 180 degrees of rotation," Marks says. "They crank from the ankles and knees or tilt the pelvis and stick out the buttocks to find a little more space in the hip sockets."

Prevention and All That Jazz

Whether it's the two-step, bunny hop, or the Macarena, when you move your body in new ways, there are risks, but for professional dancers, chiropractic can be “lifesaving.” Misty Copeland, principal ballerina with the American Ballet Theatre, has chiropractic as part of her regular health routine: “You know, I ask myself, when is the pain ever going to stop. It’s painful to train. It’s painful for the recovery. But, you know, I love what I do.”

Marks singles out specific exercises to stabilize the core and minimize the chance of injury. She suggests:

  • Clamshell
  • Side-lying leg lifts
  • Marching
  • Flexors

In the event your preventative measures don't work and you do get injured, you want to address it as soon as possible instead of dancing around the problem. That's what one professional dancer did, who posted her history on the Chicago Dance Supply blog. A stiff muscle and a slight ache grew to include numbness in her toes and lower back pain due to a lack of alignment.

The blogger, who uses the screen name JD, started seeing her chiropractor a couple of times per week. "It's important to keep up with the healing process once you start," JD says. "Of course, everyone has a different body … so my recommended treatment might be very different than yours. It is generally recommended by most chiropractors that you visit once a month, at a minimum, for a routine check."

JD believes she could have averted her injuries with regular chiropractic care, an opinion validated by many healthcare professionals. And because dancing engages your body from the neck to the feet, trauma of many kinds may occur.

Your chiropractor can offer suggestions such as proper stretching and strengthening exercises to minimize the possibility of sprains to the ankle and foot, as well as methods to fend off back injuries while dancing. This, along with regular chiropractic adjustments, can improve joint flexibility and mobility while greatly reducing the possibility of suffering from strained knees and stress fractures -- which can keep you off the dance floor for awhile.

You don't want bad health to “cut in” to your time on the dance floor, but routine visits may be beneficial to avert serious injuries. The skilled moves by your chiropractor are likely to speed up your return to the smooth moves of your dance partner. And it’s a good way to be more certain that jump, jive an’ wail doesn’t become bump, bruise an’ swell.

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