Keys to Recognize an Injury (… and How to Deal) by Jaimie Goodwin on DancePlug

Injuries are part of the game when it comes to being a dancer. Chances are we all have or will experience one on some level. For minor injuries the best treatment is usually rest. But how do we know if it’s minor or if we’re experiencing something more serious?

"The first key to recognizing injury is in knowing your body."

Body awareness and education is SO important. As dancers our body is our tool. It’s the piano to the pianist. When training not every curriculum is the same, and some are more anatomically based than others. In addition, there’s new information on the functionality of dancer’s bodies being discovered all the time. It’s our job as teachers to continue to evolve with education so we can do our best to pass it on to our students and keep their bodies safe. And dancers: it’s our job to hone in on studying our bodies, not just the anatomy of it but also the feelings. Sensation is our body’s way of communicating with us and some uncomfortable sensations are inevitable in training. Sensations, and the description of, can vary for everyone and people have different levels of tolerance. But when it comes to “pain” there are “good pains” (growing pains if you will) and “bad pains”, and it’s important to know the difference. For example the feeling you get when you stretch, the burning feeling that comes when conditioning and strengthening muscles, or the inevitable post-work out soreness are all considered safe and good sensations. But if the pain is sharp, throbbing, stabbing, or feels like an electric shock it’s a “bad pain”, a warning sign. It can indicate irritation and can point to injury. An achy feeling is something to listen to as well, it can be a symptom of many things: a couple common issues being muscle overuse, strains, tendonitis or bursitis.

"If you suspect you have a strained or torn muscle do not stretch it!"

A feeling of instability in a joint is extremely dangerous and usually points to a ligament tear. When dealing with my torn ACLs (I’ve had 3 of them) I didn’t experience immense pain or swelling in my joint. However, I had an overwhelming sense of nervousness when doing simple jumps or turns and I innately felt that my knee would “give out” on me. Occasionally it would, each time causing more and more damage. Cartilage issues, such as a meniscus tear, can feel like something is “stuck” or “catching” when you’re moving the joint. In addition, most people experience sharp pain when loading into the joint, with movements such as a grande plie or landing from jumps. Ligament and cartilage issues are serious and if you have any of the symptoms it’s best to see a doctor right away. Nicholas Cutri, my current physical therapist and developer of Sugarfoot Therapy (an injury prevention program created just for dancers- you gotta check it out!), stresses this: “If you do have ligament or cartilage damage the resulting instability of the joint can cause far greater insult to the other structures of the joint- turning something bad into something HORRIBLE!” So please, don’t chance it. It’s not worth it! Tears, muscle strains, and sprains, can be recognized by swelling and sometimes bruising. While they tend to be more common and less severe injuries be aware that these types of injuries may actually be trying to tell you something.“They can indicate severe movement dysfunctions and lead to more serious issues down the line”, warns Dr. Cutri. While they're uncomfortably painful and healing times vary the most beneficial home treatment is rest and ice. Although, it’s always a good idea to see a orthopedic doctor and/or physical therapist if you’re concerned you have an injury. Even if it seems minor, and especially if it’s reoccurring, it’s wise to get a professional opinion. And side note dancers: if you suspect you have a strained or torn muscle do not stretch it. (a lot of us jump straight into a stretch as a solution to everything, I know I used too!). In the case of a torn muscle, stretching can cause more damage to the tissue. Instead stay off of it and consider seeing a PT to get assistance in the healing process. There are plenty of therapies that can ease healing and help prevent a reoccurrence.

Another symptom to be aware of is popping, snapping, and grinding feelings. Some popping is natural while others can signify more severity. If your snapping or popping is consistent stop whatever movement you’re doing until you figure out where the problem lies. A lot of times it can be a technical execution issue and can be corrected with the right conditioning, but popping + pain is NEVER healthy. A signature trait of ligament tears is a large audible “pop” accompanied with pain and followed by swelling, stiffness, and instability. For me there was a lot of pain the moment my ACL popped. However, that pain quickly subsided and the swelling was minimal at first, but grew a bit over time. The biggest indicator of my ligament tears was the unstable, “wobbly” feeling. My knee was so lax it makes my stomach turn just thinking about it and yet because of the strength of my muscles they were able to guard my torn ACL and allowed me to dance full out for several months after the initial tear. I felt that something was very wrong but I pushed forward anyway (baaaadddd girl!), refusing to see a doctor because, well, honestly I was terrified and I didn’t want to hear any bad news or to be told I couldn’t dance. I ended up tearing my meniscus and LCL before I finally took a pause. Don’t do what I did. Listen to your body and go see a doctor.

Teachers: I believe we have a great responsibility to our students to learn about the anatomy of the body: our tool. Not just the structure and how it functions but also the difference between “good sensations” and “bad sensations” when we’re moving. If we were driving a car and the “check engine” light came on, beeping and flashing at us every time we drove, we would be silly to ignore it and keep driving until it blows. So why do we keep pushing our bodies until they blow out when they are MUCH more valuable than a car and literally irreplaceable? Teaching students about their bodies, how they work, and how they communicate with us could save a dancer from missing out on a beautifully dreamy, long, and healthy career.

So to every dancer and coach out there, even if you’re not experiencing an injury it’s important to start studying and memorizing how your body feels when it’s in top shape in contrast to how it feels when you’re sore, fatigued, or injured. Study everything about yourself from head to toe and from alignment to sensations. When you have this knowledge and know how your body is supposed to feel at it’s best you’ll be more equipped tell if something is really off and be able to protect yourself. Your body and your future will thank you for it!

In partnership with Nick Cutri and Sugarfoot Therapy. (A very special thanks to you!) Instagram: @sugarfoot_therapy

Next up: Finding A Doctor You Can Trust

About the author

Jaimie Goodwin has been working as a professional dancer for over ten years. You may know her from shows such as SYTYCD, DWTS, or Shaping Sound Dance Company. After overcoming multiple serious injuries she has become an advocate of preventative care and wellness for dancers.