Overuse It? You'll Lose It: How to Prevent the Overuse Injuries Most Common in Dancers

October 22, 2019

As dancers, we always want to be doing #TheMost—more turns, springier jumps, higher extensions. We want to cram as many technique classes as we can into our already-busy schedules. But our bones, muscles, and tendons can’t always keep pace with those ambitious training goals. That’s when overuse injuries (aka “the bane of any elite athlete’s existence”) tend to show up. Dance Spirit enlisted the experts to help you banish these pesky pains from your hardworking dancer bod.

How Done Is Overdone?

Overuse injuries mostly come from “repetitive movements that increase compensatory issues and later on cause trauma to the muscles or tendons,” says Andrea Lasner, a physical therapist specializing in dance injuries and pediatric orthopedics (who also directs The Johns Hopkins Hospital Performing Arts Fellowship Program) in Baltimore, MD. Translation? Doing the same step or movement over and over again—i.e., the kind of repeated practice that’s required to improve technique—puts strain on your muscles and connective tissues, which can then become injured over time if the muscles aren’t strong enough or are used incorrectly.

Jacquelyn Nelson, a certified athletic trainer and co-founder of the adolescent dance medicine program at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta, says that three main categories of factors can lead to overuse injuries: intrinsic, environmental, and situational. “Intrinsic factors have to do with your physical body: hypermobility or inflexibility, weakness in particular muscles, general health, prior injuries, and any dominance of one side over the other,” she explains. Environmental factors include your footwear (or lack thereof), the quality of the floor you’re dancing on, any costume elements that might distort your alignment and placement, etc. What about situational factors? “Males generally have more upper-body injuries because of lifts, younger dancers’ muscles aren’t fully developed, and each style of dance comes with its own risk factors,” Nelson says. Just think of the ankle strength and stability required for pointework!

Let’s Go Over the Details

Wondering if that annoying twinge in your knee is just a random ache, or an overuse injury waiting to happen? “If the pain gets worse as class goes on, and it’s become more consistent over days or weeks, talk to a parent so you can get some medical advice to see what’s going on,” says Lasner. Watch out for what Nelson says are the most common types of overuse injuries in dancers: “foot and ankle pain (because of jumping and pointework), back pain (common if you have weak core muscles), and tendonitis,” Nelson says.

Listening to your teachers’ corrections and maintaining proper technique will go a long way towards preventing these and other overuse injuries. Take snapping hip syndrome, a condition in which a band of muscle catches repeatedly (and sometimes painfully) on the outside of the hip bone. According to Lasner, your hip can “snap” like this when you’re misusing the muscles at the front of the hip, or failing to fully engage your abdominal muscles. Read: Continuing to strive for proper alignment and to address the specific weaknesses in your technique will help protect you against overuse injury.

Andrea Lasner working with a dance student on proper positioning (Johns Hopkins Medicine, courtesy Lasner)

Over and Out

Outside of the studio, there’s plenty else you can do to avoid these roadblocks. Nelson recommends working on overall flexibility, resisting the urge to force turnout, strengthening the core/hips/glutes/ankles, and cross-training to support your dance styles of choice (think Pilates, yoga, biking, and walking).

Speaking of cross-training: Lasner suggests thinking of sleep and nutrition as essential components of your dance training. “Sleep is when your body repairs the stress of the previous day’s classes and rehearsals,” she says. “Research hasn’t yet supported a direct correlation, but clinically we’ve seen that vitamin D and calcium play an important role in mitigating tendonitis and other chronic pain.”

It’s not the end of your dance career if you’re diagnosed with an overuse injury—but neither is it a hiccup to be taken lightly, say both Lasner and Nelson. “If these injuries aren’t taken care of, the dancer will continue to experience pain,” Nelson says. “Chronic tendon issues can even bring about a tendon rupture.”

While that’s a worst-case scenario, your dancing can only benefit from proactive self-care, Lasner says: “My motto when working with dancers is that we want you to dance for a lifetime. If you listen to the pain signals your body sends you, focus on making yourself strong, and take care of yourself, you’ll be able to dance with minimal pain for as long as you want to.”