Taking the “scary” out of seeing a doctor and how to find one you can trust
From what I’ve seen dancers have a great fear of visiting doctors (I know I did). We’re used to having a boot slapped on us, being told not to dance, and in more severe circumstances that we may not be able to return to our sport. Which, yes, in some cases those might be the safest diagnoses'. But a lot of times that type of treatment comes from the doctors lack of knowledge and experience when it comes to working with high-intensity athletes. Dancers are magical creatures. We challenge our bodies in every facet. Strength, contortion, stamina, weight lifting, abstract-transitional movement, and high impact jumping/landing. We work in long, extended ways, and in short staccato ways. Fast and slow. We even strap a hard, barely-toe-shaped box on to our feet so we can dance on top of our toes…for fun! We are artists and we are athletes. Our bodies are trained to function differently than most and we demand an incredible amount from them. We have a fighting spirit and tenacity that pushes us to our limits, and sometimes too far past. So where’s the sweet spot between knowing when it’s time to take the advice to stop, treat, and heal and knowing when it’s safe to keep dancing?
The sweet spot is in finding the right doctor.
When we understand our sport and the fact that it challenges our bodies in extremely abstract ways, we can easily see how we end up with misdiagnoses’ or inadequate treatment plans. For a lot of us dance isn’t just a hobby it’s our lifestyle. It’s what feeds our soul, and pays our bills. So, let’s be honest a couple months of RICE-ing without a clear answer just isn’t acceptable. These sub-par medical experiences have spoiled our idea of taking care of our bodies and has created a general sense of fear and avoidance when it comes to dancers seeking treatment. But it doesn’t have to be that way. When your body is your livelihood your doctors should be a part of your team. That’s why choosing a team who is qualified and whom you can TRUST can help to make or break the longevity of your career.
When choosing a doctor you’ll want to see either an orthopedic doctor or a physical therapist and there are a few stand-out factors to look for when choosing one. Their level of education and post doctoral experience is one of them. Look for doctors who have not only studied sports medicine but who also have an abundance of active experience in the field. Having a physical therapist that is familiar with dancers can make a difference when training or rehabbing. But essentially if you find a great sports therapist who is willing to research your craft they should be able to translate their knowledge into a dance focused return-to-sport treatment plan without a problem. Dr. Nick Cutri, creator of Sugarfoot Therapy, stresses how important it is to find a therapist that uses discretionary thinking when conditioning their patients for their return-to-sport. He says the most important aspect of recovery over the ACL protocol and standard return-to sport timeline is successful functional strength. Meaning that no matter what the standard ACL protocol states when it comes to progressing towards your sport you must have a therapist that only progresses you as you are ready, not just because “it’s time”. Additionally, make sure they have experience and knowledge in multiple forms of conditioning and athletics. Cross training for a dancer is incredibly important, especially when it comes to a recovery or conditioning to stay injury-free, and it’s often not focused on nearly enough, if at all. Another thing to look for is what kind of injuries the doctor has experience treating and who they’ve successfully treated. What kind of athletes have they rehabilitated and at what level do those athletes perform? An athlete that participates recreationally usually has a completely different training intensity and mentality than an athlete whose life is the sport and therefore requires a different level of treatment.
Now the magic ingredient is to have doctors whom you’re comfortable with and can talk to. You have to be able to trust them with your life and to know without a doubt that they are guiding you in the direction of your goals. There are a lot of really intelligent and capable doctors out there but what separates an able doctor from an incredible doctor is their ability to empower you through the healing process. They understand the mental and emotional struggle. They understand the financial burden. They understand that your reality is being shaken. They understand all of the fears. And they don’t just understand, they empathize with you. They take the time to listen and to strategize with you. They do everything they can to treat the problem and to give you all of your options candidly. They support you, guide you, and aim to protect you. When the time comes they help motivate you to set goals. And most importantly they believe in you in the moments that you don’t believe in yourself. And trust me those moments will happen.
A good doctor knows how to treat the body. A great doctor does that with equal genius but also shares the passion behind the heart of an athlete and knows that their power goes much further than the physical fix.
Don’t know where to start? Ask around! Professional dance companies and dance agencies usually have doctors they can recommend or at least know of other dancers that have been treated by great doctors. You want to make sure you’re getting good recommendations, so don’t just ask your friend’s opinions or yelp a Doc. Ask professionals who have had experience with serious injuries. Be aware that most Orthopedic doctors require a recommendation, which you should be able to request from your general doctor. And remember, your general doctor may be wonderful but most likely isn’t qualified to diagnose and treat a dance related injury. Therefore it’s almost always a good idea to request a visit to a sports specific orthopedic doctor or physical therapist if you suspect something may be up. Once you’ve collected some recommendations make sure to thoroughly prepare yourself for the visit. Write down a list of your symptoms and the questions you have and don’t be afraid to communicate them. Study your symptoms: The type of pain you're having and with what movement, if there’s swelling or no swelling, if there are any feelings of instability, numbness, tingling, etc. Anything you’ve noticed that is unusual is helpful for your doctor to know. Hearing a diagnoses can be a difficult and emotional time and you want to make sure you’re getting all the information you need. Ask detailed questions on what you should expect before, throughout and after treatment. As well as an outlook on how long it may take to recover. If you’ve been recommended a surgery ask about everything, big and small. Some suggested questions may be: What they will be doing in surgery? What kind of tissue graft will be used (if needed)? How long will you be resting post-op? What will your return-to-sport outlook look like? Will you be able to drive? When will you start PT and what will your duration be? Will it be out-patient? Will you be full, partial or zero weight bearing post-op? Having a surgery becomes a temporary yet extreme lifestyle change. So, especially if a surgical fix has been suggested, always consider getting a second opinion.
In partnership with Nick Cutri and Sugarfoot Therapy. (A very special thanks to you!) Instagram: @sugarfoot_therapy
Next up: Preventing Injury: The Importance of Cross Training