Physical discomfort is inevitable when you're spending tons of hours in the studio every day, but some pain shouldn't be suffered through. "Dancing through pain can make an injury worse and lead to more time away from dance," says Dr. Joel Brenner, medical director of dance medicine at Children's Hospital of The King's Daughters in Norfolk, VA. "Failing to rest and recover when you're in serious pain could even lead to the point where you're unable to dance in the future."
That may sound scary, but there's good news: If you take precautions and listen to your body, many injuries can be stopped in their tracks. The first step? Knowing what's normal—and what's not.
Good Pain, Bad Pain
You likely already know that an acute injury (like a broken bone or torn muscle) causes persistent, sharp pain. You also know that mild soreness isn't necessarily harmful—it's a by-product of muscles getting stronger. But pay attention if soreness is getting worse or affecting how you're dancing. According to Brenner, "Some common adolescent dance injuries, like stress fractures in the back, can present as persistent soreness that gets worse with dancing."
Other sources of concern include swelling around the site of pain or feelings of instability in or around a joint. Basically, a good rule of thumb is that if any kind of pain has stuck around for five to seven days, it's time to think about seeing your MD.
Preemption and Prevention
Want to avoid taking time off from dance to heal serious injuries? Spend time outside of the studio on a regular basis. "Make sure you aren't always dancing seven days a week," says Brenner. "The body and brain need to recover. Pain, injury, and burnout often go together." Classic healthy habits—like cross-training with Pilates and yoga, eating well, getting plenty of sleep, and steering clear of harmful stuff like alcohol and cigarettes—will also help keep pain away.
It's OK if you occasionally pop an ibuprofen after dancing or performing, but don't overdo it. "There's a reason your body's having pain: It's the sign of a problem," Brenner says. Never take more than the recommended dosage, and remember that nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) shouldn't need to be part of your everyday routine.
A version of this story appeared in the October 2017 issue of Dance Spirit with the title "Pain Pointers."