The Dancer's Dictionary of Medical Specialists

November 11, 2020

Podiatrists and physiatrists and pulmonologists, oh, my! There are a lot of medical subspecialists out there—and many of these professionals can make a real difference to a dancer’s health and career. With the help of Virginia Wilmerding, PhD (dance science researcher and research professor for the exercise science and dance programs at the University of New Mexico), and Elizabeth Yutzey, MFA in dance science (and chair of the International Association for Dance Medicine & Science’s Student Committee), Dance Spirit has compiled a handy list of specialist physicians that growing dancers should be aware of.

  • ALLERGIST: “An allergist is somebody who would treat any kind of intolerance or allergy,” says Yutzey. “Anything from a food allergy to the dust in a studio can really impact your performance as a dancer.”
  • CARDIOLOGIST: Though good heart function and cardiovascular endurance are obviously key for dancers, “most won’t ever need a cardiologist,” says Wilmerding. Still, Yutzey says, you might find yourself visiting the cardiologist “if you notice irregular heartbeat, or experience an emergency episode involving your heart.”
  • CHIROPRACTOR: “The initial reason you might go to a chiropractor is for spine or joint pain,” says Wilmerding. “A chiropractor will physically adjust the bones in your body to relieve chronic discomfort.” Yutzey advises dancers who see a chiropractor to make sure they are aware of any hypermobility before they are treated. “There are potential risks to being manually manipulated if your joints are looser than average.”
  • DANCE/SPORTS PSYCHOLOGIST: Coming back from injury? A psychologist who works with dancers could be your secret weapon, Yutzey says: “If you don’t feel confident on the ankle that was injured, you actually put yourself at risk of reinjury.” Sports psychologists can guide you through the mental and emotional journey of returning to the studio. They also teach techniques like visualization, positive self-talk, and other coping mechanisms for performance anxiety and beyond.
  • DERMATOLOGIST: “Apart from the obvious changes your skin goes through as you grow”—think acne, etc.—”there are skin conditions and problems you can pick up from unclean studio surfaces,” says Wilmerding. Luckily, a dermatologist can remedy athlete’s foot or any other yucky skin situation.

A dietician can help you put together a plan to feed yourself right. (Getty Images)

  • DIETITIAN: “Unlike the average person or even other athletes, dancers have very high energy demands and very odd schedules,” explains Yutzey, who herself has consulted a dance dietitian: “They can help you put together a plan to feed yourself right.” This kind of professional might also call him- or herself a nutritionist, depending on his or her education and credentials—which, by the way, you should always check before booking an appointment.
  • ENDOCRINOLOGIST: “The endocrine system is your body’s communication mechanism,” explains Wilmerding. If anything about your growth or transition into puberty seems off, your regular doctor will likely recommend that you see an endocrinologist to get things back on track.
  • FAMILY PRACTICE PHYSICIAN, or FAMILY MEDICINE DOCTOR: In contrast to a pediatrician (who’ll typically see patients up to age 21 or so), a family practice physician sees patients of all ages for “primary care.” That means yearly checkups, standard illnesses and “your first stop if you’re experiencing any issues,” says Yutzey. For dance-related injuries or concerns, Yutzey says it’s best if you can see a sports-medicine pediatrician.
  • GASTROENTEROLOGIST: “I have quite a few dancer friends who’ve had to sit out of class due to irritable bowel syndrome,” says Yutzey. Dancers affected by IBS, gluten intolerance, or any other digestive issue can really benefit from seeing a gastroenterologist.
  • GYNECOLOGIST: “Most dancers are female,” notes Wilmerding, “and so most dancers should start seeing a gynecologist at the onset of puberty.” It may not seem like it, but the health of your sexual/reproductive system is closely connected to your overall health as a dancer. Among other concerns, your gynecologist will pay close attention to when you start having menstrual periods and any irregularities in your cycle—both of which, Yutzey says, can signal a bigger issue called “relative energy deficiency syndrome” (previously known as the “female athlete triad”).

Orthopedists can help diagnose and prevent problems in your joints—like your ankles. (Getty Images)

  • ORTHOPEDIST or ORTHOPEDIC SURGEON: “These are doctors who specialize in diagnosing and preventing problems in the bones, joints, ligaments, tendons and muscles,” says Yutzey. For dancers, that can mean treating anything from hip dysplasia to bunions, Achilles tendon injuries to bowlegs. Wilmerding suggests looking for an orthopedist who specializes in the body part that’s concerning you and/or a doc whose focus is on dancers (or other high-performance athletes, like figure skaters).
  • OSTEOPATH: “A doctor of osteopathic medicine (DO) takes more of a holistic approach to medicine,” says Yutzey. For example, a conventionally trained doctor of medicine (MD) might focus on your elbow if that’s where the problem is. “A DO is trained to look at the entire body to see how and why the elbow is having a problem,” Yutzey explains. Osteopaths receive additional training to understand the body’s nerves, muscles and bones, and are particularly focused on prevention. If you visit a DO, you’ll notice them using their hands a lot to both diagnose and treat.
  • PHYSIATRIST: “A physiatrist is a licensed, board-certified medical doctor who diagnoses and treats musculoskeletal problems,” says Wilmerding. A physiatrist can help with chronic pain, especially involving the spinal cord or connective tissues. The physiatrist might treat you with acupuncture, injections, massage or exercises à la physical therapy.
  • PHYSICAL THERAPIST: “Physical therapists do a number of things for dancers,” Yutzey says, “including managing chronic conditions, preventing injuries (‘prehab’) and treating injuries (‘rehab’).” A PT might prescribe exercises to perform on your own at home, educate you with information about your body’s quirks, and perform manual therapy on the area of concern.
  • PODIATRIST: Listen up, bunheads: All that extra stress on your feet and ankles means you could end up seeing a podiatrist at some point. “Podiatrists can help with bunions, stress fractures or other overuse injuries, plus any other foot/ankle issue,” says Yutzey.
  • PULMONOLOGIST: “Unless you develop lung or breathing problems, you probably won’t need to visit a pulmonologist,” Wilmerding says. Yutzey started seeing a pulmonologist when she developed exercise-induced asthma in high school. “If you’re having a hard time breathing or it takes a long time to catch your breath after a combination, you may want to go get assessed,” she says.
  • RADIOLOGIST: Fingers crossed that you won’t see too many of these! A radiologist is the doctor who diagnoses any injuries based on X-ray, CT, MRI, PET scans and ultrasounds, says Wilmerding.
  • THERAPIST: According to Wilmerding, “This is a highly underutilized specialty among dancers. You don’t have to have mental or psychological ‘problems’ to benefit from seeing a therapist.”