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Dance Injuries: 5 Most Common to Avoid

As a former professional ballerina, I had my own career impacted by injuries. While dancing at Canada’s National Ballet School, I was able to undergo Physical Therapy, or “Physiotherapy” as our Canadian friends call it, for all of my dance related injuries. Beyond proper technique and overall strength, working with physical therapists while I was injured allowed me to extend my career, and it set me up for the next stage in my life. When I hung up my pointe shoes, I returned to school and earned my Doctorate in Physical Therapy.

In my daily practice, I now routinely treat dancers. I have been fortunate to work with some really talented young dancers, but I continue to see the same injuries routinely. Injuries that with the right support can be managed or avoided altogether.

Injuries were common in my own career and in the careers of all of my friends, but as a physical therapist, I know it doesn’t have to be this way. I know that you can have a pain free (or almost pain free) dance career. So, I’m going to share the Top 5 Dance Injuries, I have had and that I treat as a physical therapist.

Injuries to a dancer are common. But common injuries don't have to keep you off the stage. By working with a physical therapist, you can learn the signs that you need to take a rest, get feedback on your technique, and get the support to dance at your highest level.

When dancers come to see me, they generally have an injury to one of 5 body parts, and while many of these injuries could happen to multiple body parts, this is where I see them the most. In order from lowest body part to highest, here are my Top 5 Dance Injuries

Foot Injury: Stress Fractures

Dancers are on their feet all the time, and they are putting a lot of force on their feet. Whether from the compounded impact of jumping or being en pointe for hours, Dancers are prone to a foot injury known as a Stress Fracture.

A stress fracture is a tiny crack in the bone, and for dancers this commonly occurs in the second metatarsal (that is your second toe). Stress fractures are common following a sudden and drastic increase in physical activity because of this it makes sense to increase your activity slowly so as to avoid stress fractures in the first place. But if you already have a stress fracture, it is likely going to require rest. Sometimes dancers are able to reduce the amount of dance and heal, but oftentimes this overuse injury is going to require extended rest in order to heal properly.

Ankle Injury: Sprained Ankles

Whether its rising into relevé, turning, or just walking, our ankles are a prime target for injuries. The most common ankle injury is one that every dancer I know has dealt with, the sprained ankle. Lateral ankle rolls coming down from a jump or off pointe are very common ways of incurring a sprained ankle.

I doubt that anyone has ever died from a sprained ankle, but that doesn’t make dancing on one any easier or any more enjoyable. Even if you can dance on a sprained ankle, let me caution you to get the physical therapy you need to make a full recovery. Ankle injuries can be additive, that is once you have one you are likely to have another (especially if you didn’t handle the first fully), and repeated ankle injuries can lead to arthritis down the road. Take the time now to heal your ankle sprain and enjoy your extended dance career later.

Knee Injury: Jumper's Knee

While it was not often talked about when I was dancing, today every young dancer I treat with knee pain wants to know if she has “Jumper’s Knee.” Also known as runner’s knee, Jumper’s Knee is really a condition called patellofemoral pain syndrome, which just means you are having pain around the front of your knee and around your kneecap. When I see it, Jumper’s Knee often presents as pain at the bottom of the knee cap, but it doesn’t have to only be there.

This is another one of those injuries I see commonly in younger dancers who have recently increased the amount of time they spend in the studio. There is no short cut to a dancing career, but rushing your training or pushing yourself to far too fast is a sure-fire way to end your dance career before it starts.

Hip Injury: Snapping Hip

For as artistic as dancer’s are, I have to say the description of our injuries is pretty straightforward. When it comes to hip injuries, the most common injury I see in dancers in “Snapping Hip.” Aptly named because when you move you feel a snapping sensation, or your hip makes a popping or snapping sound.

With snapping hip, a muscle or tendon of your hip is moving over the bone, but it doesn’t always cause pain and if it isn’t causing pain, in many cases it can just be ignored. If there is hip pain, it is time to get things checked out because snapping hip can lead to a painful condition known as hip bursitis. As a dancer, it’s also a good idea to get your snapping hip checked out even if there is little or no pain.

Snapping hip is an indicator that the muscles and tendons of your hip are overtightened. This can be due to technique, but it may also have to do with underlying muscle weakness (especially in the pelvic floor). If you have snapping hip, you may want to consider a physical therapist with experience in women’s health or pelvic floor dysfunction who can assess you for underlying pelvic floor and core instability.  

Back Injury: Bain Pain

Dancers, whoa, we’re hard on our bodies and nowhere is that truer than with our backs. It is estimated that up to 80% of Americans will suffer from back pain during their lifetime. While I don’t know that anyone has dance specific numbers, in my experience, all dancers experience back pain at some point in their career.

Back pain has a variety of causes, but two common reasons that I see for back pain in dancers are overuse and underlying pelvic floor dysfunction. Overuse has been a common thread through all of these dance injuries and back pain is no different. Dance puts a lot of stress and strain on the muscles of the back and without proper time to develop the technique and muscle to support the back you leave yourself injury prone. Your Pelvic Floor is the base, or foundation, of your core. It is necessary for most of your daily functions, but it is especially important in your movement and dancing. Because the muscles of our pelvic floor are deeper than our back or leg muscles, we sometime experience pelvic floor weakness as pain in our back or legs. But your pelvic floor muscles can be strengthened just like any other muscles in your body.

Preventing Dance Injuries

Preventing dance injuries is easier said than done, but here are my 4 top tips to avoiding a dance injury:

  • Increase your dance time slowly. Just like with any physical activity, if you increase your intensity too quickly you run the risk of injury and may derail your career before it ever gets going.
  • Wear proper fitting shoes. Dancers are artists and athletes, and neither an artist nor an athlete would engage in their craft without the proper tools. For a dancer, your shoes are your most important tool, take care of them and they can prevent a lot of pain and frustration.
  • Proper nutrition. Eating right and eating enough are no longer a question. You have to fuel your body to get the most out of it. If you have questions, see out a nutritionist to help you plan your meals to make sure you’re not overlooking anything.
  • Alternative activities. Cross-training, like running, swimming, or pilates, are vitally important for any dancer, but it is also important to take time doing other things you enjoy. This will allow you to come back to dance refreshed and ready to take that next grand jeté.

As I mentioned, all of these dance injuries are linked to overuse and a rapid increase in training and physical activity. But if you have already suffered, or you are currently suffering from a dance injury, it’s time to get the help you need to get back on stage.

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