We've all felt nagging pains in our lower backs, necks and shins—and we've all ignored them. It's easy for dancers to chalk these seemingly minor afflictions up to nothing more than #dancerprobz. But there comes a point when it's time to stop pretending everything's fine. “Most bigger dance injuries occur because of overuse, so dancers need to be diligent about the little problems," says Sean Gallagher, PT, founder of Performing Arts Physical Therapy in NYC. Dance Spirit spoke with Gallagher and Laura Hohm, PT, DPT, CFMT, of PhysioArts in NYC, about how to care for these unloved body parts.
You’ve just completed petit allégro—and you want to scream. Your shins ache so much that you don’t think you can do another jeté, ever. What’s this debilitating pain? It’s probably shin splints.
“Shin splints” is the general term for pain around the tibia and fibula—the bones at the front of your leg that run from your ankle to your knee. Unfortunately, dancers are prone to shin splints because dance puts repeated stress on the lower leg, and dance shoes don’t offer much cushioning. But some dancers are more susceptible than others. “There is a genetic component—bone alignment, the laxity in the joints, the way you’re put together,” explains Dr. William Raasch, who treats dancers at Milwaukee Ballet. Pronation, or “rolling in” on your feet, also makes you likelier to develop shin splints.
From diagnosis and causes to treatment and prevention, here’s what you need to know about this condition.
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According to Dr. Donald J. Rose, director of the Harkness Center for Dance Injuries in NYC, shin splints is an umbrella term for several problems:
Stress fractures are tiny breaks in the bone. They occur when the muscles around the bone become too fatigued to absorb shock, such as the impact from landing a jump. If you have a stress fracture, you’ll probably have localized pain when you dance, but the pain should go away when you stop.
Periostitis is an inflammation of the periosteum, or outer lining of the bones. According to Dr. Rose, repeated stress on the muscles attached to the periosteum cause it to become inflamed. If you have this problem, Dr. Raasch says, you’ll usually feel pain when you start dancing that will ease up as you continue the activity and then flare up again after you stop, sometimes lasting for hours.
Chronic exertional compartment syndrome occurs when the muscles around the bone swell and the lining encasing those muscles gets too tight, cutting off the oxygen and blood supply, says Dr. Rose. If you have this condition, you’ll develop an achy feeling along your shins after 5 to 10 minutes of dancing. The pain can last up to 20 minutes after you stop moving.
The above conditions can be caused by similar factors. Dr. Raasch says that while genetics is part of the equation, your environment, shoes and activity level can also play a role. Here are some common reasons you might develop shin splints:
• Dancing on surfaces that don’t provide shock absorption
• Wearing shoes that lack proper arch support
• Excessive jumping
• Dancing on a raked stage
• Suddenly increasing the intensity of activity
According to Dr. Rose, if you have recurring pain in your shins that lasts more than two weeks, you should immediately see an orthopedist who specializes in dance or sports medicine.
Depending on your condition, treatment and recovery times will vary. Resting, icing and elevating your legs for a few days may be enough in some cases. But dancers with more severe injuries may be required to undergo physical therapy or even surgery to recover from shin splints.
When you’re not dancing, wear shoes with good arch support. Avoid dancing on concrete or unsprung floors. And if you’ve taken a break from dancing, ease back into training. Be kind to your body, and it will thank you!