The Center for Podiatric Care and Sports Medicine

…5, 6, 7, 8, Oww: Six Common Dancer Foot and Ankle Injuries

Posted by on Monday, September 10th, 2012

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Autumn may make you think of sports like football, soccer, field hockey, and cross-country, with ice hockey and basketball looming on the horizon. But autumn is also often the opening of the season for ballet companies, and after a quiet summer, a new crop of musicals open on Broadway. Add to that the many tiny kids stumbling across the floor of a dance studio for the first time and it’s clear that autumn is a time for dance, too.

Dancers may appear to be elegant, strong, expressive, and insanely flexible with an effortless grace, but they work as hard as any athlete and are just as likely candidates for injury. Unfortunately like athletes, pro or aspiring, an injury can destroy the career of a dancer, or cause the loss of a year out of an already short working time; if your career is only going to last ten years, being out a year to rehab is devastating.

Here are some common injuries dancers might deal with during the course of their careers:

  • Posterior Tibial Tendonitis The posterior tibial tendon runs from the back of the shin bone, then under the heel to the arch. It helps hold up the arch and is in play with every step you take. A lot of dance moves can overwork the posterior tibial tendon, especially many common warm up and barre exercises.
  • Achilles Tendonitis The Achilles tendon is a super strong tendon that connects your calf muscle to your heel. Strong as it is, though, it’s vulnerable to wear and tear from overuse. Dancers can bring on Achilles tendonitis from dancing on hard floors or if their calf muscles are too tight.
  • Ankle sprains and fractures Ankle sprains and fractures are always a risk in any activity where you’re jumping, balancing, and taking quick steps. Things are particularly tough for touring companies, who may arrive at a theater and have little time to get to know a stage–which may not be built for dancing–and its surface quirks.
  • Posterior ankle impingement Also known as “os trigonum syndrome,” this is an overuse injury where constantly pointing the toes downward can crunch and inflame the tissues (or the os trigonum bone if it’s present) between the heel bone and the talus.
  • Sesamoiditis The sesamoids are two tiny pea-sized bones that are found underneath the muscles beneath your big toe joint. They help give the muscles extra power and cut down on the friction between your joint and muscles. Dancers who are on demi-pointe (think standing on the balls of your feet) a lot can aggravate the tendon between the sesamoids, causing pain on the ball of the foot below the big toe.
  • Metatarsalgia The metatarsal bones are the long bones that run from your midfoot to your toes, with the head of the metatarsals located in the balls of your feet. Metatarsalgia is a general term for pain in the ball of your foot. This is usually an overuse injury, especially for people who put a lot of pounding on their feet. Think basketball players, forefoot striking runners, and, well dancers. People with long second toes or high arches–the kind that are desirable for ballet dancers–may be prone to metatarsalgia.

So what is there to do about these injuries? The key is to do something. Don’t ignore them, or they’ll just get worse and you’ll miss more time than you would if you took some time immediately to let them heal. If you feel pain in your foot or ankle, see a podiatrist at The Center for Podiatric Care and Sports Medicine (212.996.1900) to get a diagnosis and a treatment plan.

It’s impossible to prevent all injuries when you’re doing something that puts as much stress on your feet and ankles as dance. The best plan is to:

  • Listen to your body. As noted above, if you feel an injury coming on, take a break and let it heel. As the astronauts say, you don’t want a problem to become an emergency.
  • Wear the right shoes in the right size in the right condition. Dancers obsess about shoes so there’s probably no need to remind them to get the right shoes for each particular style of dance they do. However, they should make sure they get their feet sized when they go shopping for shoes; feet can change size and manufacturers can change fits so it’s important to always check out your size and fit rather than just pick up what you got last time. And comfortable as they may be, don’t stick with old, broken down shoes.
  • Eat well. A healthy diet will keep your bones and muscles strong. I know dancers are always trying to stay thin, but eating healthy food doesn’t make you fat; eating junk food does. Dancers can struggle financially so it’s important that they use the money they do have for healthy food, not a giant cup of black coffee from an expensive coffee shop and a bag of potato chips.
  • Cross train. Try different styles of dance to work different parts of your body and give your feet a break from some types of repetitive motions.
  • Give yourself a break. If you’re overworked, you’re more likely to get hurt. Try to get some non-dance time into your schedule (and no, riding the train from class to the theater isn’t enough). Literally put your feet up and relax.

It’s hard to keep your feet safe when you ask them to do so much, but with care (and a little luck), you can avoid a devastating injury. Keep dancing–unless it hurts!

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If you have any foot problems or pain, contact The Center for Podiatric Care and Sports MedicineDr. Josef J. GeldwertDr. Katherine Lai, Dr. Ryan Minara and Dr. Mariola Rivera have helped thousands of people get back on their feet. Unfortunately, we cannot give diagnoses or treatment advice online. Please make an appointment to see us if you live in the NY metropolitan area or seek out a podiatrist in your area.