Monday, August 31, 2009

Pain Management

Dancers are often in pain. It’s a fact of life when you spend hours everyday pushing your muscles and bones beyond their usual limits. Sometimes running through a particular piece of choreography several times will cause muscles in a certain area to seize up. I remember longing for the day when I could be a “normal” person again: someone who would wake up free from pain and go about my day without taxing my body too much. Little did I know that my days would never morph into normality as I’d hoped, even after I stopped dancing.

Now I spend my days as a “normal” person, but it’s anything but the normal I dreamed about during my dancing days. As an employee at a bank, I work primarily at a computer. Any movement I make is one I force upon myself to take a break and get up and walk around. Unfortunately, my body has never really recovered from the abuse it took dancing. I’d like to do some research one day on retired ballet dancers and find out how many suffer from pain. Yesterday I read an article about Darcey Bussell; after being retired from dancing for two years she only exercises 45 minutes a week! She is determined to be a normal person, too. But back to my point…pain. How do dancers get relief from pain?

There are many things you can do to find relief—several of which I’ve tried. I can tell you what worked for me and then you can add comments to let us know what worked for you.

1. Chiropractic – Back when I was dancing, chiropractors were really considered alternative medicine. Today they have earned a more respectable place in medicine, and many primary care physicians refer patients to chiropractors. I’ve found that going once a month has been a good way to keep myself in alignment and to keep severe back pain at bay.

2. Acupuncture – I have a good friend from China who is an acupuncturist and I’ve seen her several times for back pain, ankle pain, neck pain, tennis elbow, depression, and what have you. She claims she can treat pretty much anything that ails you, and I don’t doubt it. Acupuncture can be expensive, and many insurance plans still don’t cover treatments. My acupuncturist actually doesn’t deal with insurance companies, so that makes it really hard for me to see her instead of a chiropractor, although sometimes I think acupuncture once a month would be ideal.

3. Massage – My healthcare plan allows me to see my chiropractor , who also employs massage therapists, and I can get an adjustment and a 30 minute massage all included in my $25 copay. You really can’t beat that, and the massage therapists there are wonderful. They target the areas where I’ve been experiencing the most pain lately. You have to feel comfortable telling them when they are pressing too hard or not hard enough. They can’t know unless you communicate with them, so don’t be afraid. Usually they are too gentle and I feel I could fall asleep since I’m so relaxed. This past month the girl was very intense and I was biting my tongue to keep from yelling out in pain. When I told her it was too much, she asked me if it was actually painful or just uncomfortable. I think that’s the way you can tell if it’s helping you or not: if it’s uncomfortable, it’s probably just right. I was actually in pain (with bruises to prove the point the next day), so she went a little lighter on the pressure after that.

4. Yoga – Sometimes just meditation and gentle stretching can relieve stress and tension. Using gravity to gently stretch out tight muscles while concentrating on your breathing can be a winning combination. There’s a lot to be said for meditation and pain, too.

5. Hot baths – Using Epsom salts in a nice, hot bath can be relaxing to tired muscles, especially at the end of a long day of dancing. If you’re pretty sure you’re going to be sore tomorrow, taking a hot bath tonight can help a lot. I like using REV for athletes. It’s a salt you can sit in for 15 minutes and it’s very helpful.

Does anyone else have ideas for helping relieve pain? Please leave a comment!


  1. Hello Tammy,
    I'm a lifelong ballerina and have taught for 35 years. I'm 57 and still teach. I totally identified with everything you said in your post. I wanted to respond to your query about pain relief. For me, massage is #1. Finding a sympathetic masseuse is not so easy but if a dancer can find the perfect masseuse -- and connect -- then massage is heavenly. And #2 is daily stretching. I guess this would fall under your Yoga category. I stretch on my living room floor almost every day and my stretch routine is a combination of ballet stretches & yoga. I throw a little Pilates in sometimes too! Somehow I survived my life of ballet in tact and then fell getting out of the shower and that slip is what I'm dealing with now. Also, love the grand battement combo! xoxo Amy Arnaz

  2. Amy, thanks so much for your insights! It is my hope and goal to be in a position to teach again one day, even to a small degree. I miss it so much. It's great to hear from you. And I'm glad you liked the combination. I'll be publishing a book of over 200 advanced combinations soon through Once I approve the final copy it will be available on too. Thanks!

  3. Hi tammy,

    I just discovered your blog! After having known you for many years, I also just realized about your extensive background in dance! Where have I been? I have been in the health care field for 21 years. Throughout those years, I have come across many modalities of which is considered alternative and complementary methods by. Intuitively, health and healing for me has been a holistic approach. I embrace all the paths you have mentioned above. I can certainly appreciate an athlete's pain as well as an everyday person's discomforts and physical and emotional injuries. The fact is, as holistic beings we carry trauma and injury (physical or emotional) in our body. As a massage therapist, I approach the whole person by taking in detailed history and if they are open, combination of energy works, such as reiki, chakra balancing... and different modalities of massage. Communication during the actual massage is very important on the degree of discomfort and if there is deferred pain, or relief as different areas are addressed. So, a foundation has to be in place between the therapist and the client for optimal outcome. Also, we have to remember, how long it took us to aquire those injuries, and have a healthy expectation, that it will take that long to undo/or maintain a pain free life. I can certainly appreciate Amy's comments.
    Thanks Tammy for this blog,

  4. Kereshmeh, thanks for the comments! And, knowing you are a nurse, I too am learning new things about you in that you are a massage therapist! I like what you say about having healthy expectations based on how long it took us to acquire our injuries. Good stuff!

  5. Often times I think that a cook's life is almost parallel to a dancer's life. My whole 8-10 hour shift has to be carefully choreographed in order to get everything done on time, and my body takes a beating every day, so I'm constantly dealing with pain issues. Ten years of cooking and baking have totally beat up my feet, and this past March I had to have ankle surgery in which I had a screw inserted into each ankle in order to correct over-pronation issues that were causing severe pain throughout my body. My feet are probably my most important assets. If they don't work probably, nothing else in my day does! To deal with constant muscle pain I rely on the following: epsom salt baths, bi-monthly massage, stretching, diet modifications, relaxation techniques, moderate exercise (swimming is my #1 activity that both stretches and works my muscles at the same time without causing strain), and weight lifting. Weight lifting has been surprisingly beneficial. Muscle imbalances cause fatigue and pain. Women are naturally "muscle heavy" in the front of their bodies and will often experience pain in the back of their bodies due to imbalances. Weight lifting can bring balance back to the body and help the body perform more efficiently. Weight lifting is also the best exercise to help relieve tendonitis because it retrains inflamed and weak muscles to work more efficiently.

    With all these pain relieving techniques, I do, occasionally, still have to rely on ibuprofen!

  6. Thanks, Roxanne! I can't imagine standing up for 8-10 hours a day like you do. And screws in your ankles sounds very painful. I sure do love Panera Bread baked goods! :)

  7. Recovering from the surgery wasn't too bad. It only took about 8 weeks before I was back on my feet 100%. The screws were actually inserted into this space called the sinus tarsi, right underneath the ankle joint. What it does is prevent my arches from collapsing (a genetic condition for me) and corrects my walking gate. The hardest part of the recovery was learning how to walk correctly. For about 4 weeks, I toddled around like a 1 year old learning how to walk. It was weird! =) I'm doing well, but still can't do intense aerobic activity like running or jumping activities, and it will be probably be about 6 more months before I can do that sort of activity. I consider it a positive sacrifice for less pain overall. :)