Professional dancers in musicals like Hamilton are at risk of various injuries because they put in long hours perfecting their performances. This is true for youth dancers as well – especially children and teens who specialize at ever-younger ages.
“I see younger dancers doing a particular two or three minute routine 20 or 30 times a week if not more,” said Dr. Carrie Jaworski, medical director for Hamilton Chicago. “So anytime you’re doing repetitive motions in any sport you set yourself up for risk of increased injuries because the body is being asked to do something more often than it’s used to.”
Jaworski is the director of Primary Care Sports Medicine for the NorthShore Orthopedic Institute, which has offices in Glenview and Chicago. During her 17 years of experience in sports medicine she’s found that ballet, modern dance and Irish dance can result in different injuries.
Jaworski explained that in classical ballet, the common injuries are in the lower body for female dancers, so backs are often an area of pain, as well as the feet, buttocks and ankle.
“These injuries could result in Achilles tendonitis or ankle sprains if they come down from a jump incorrectly,” she said. “However, the male dancers often have upper body injuries to the shoulders and neck just from the straining of lifting the ballerinas.”
Modern dancers tend to do things more up and down off the floor, which means there are unlimited opportunities for injuries depending on the choreography.
Injuries in Irish dance are primarily lower body with foot, ankle and knee pain particularly with young, growing athletes. “I always tell the dancers, the bones grow before the muscles and tendons, so now your body is trying to do in the end with longer bones, but not necessarily longer hamstrings,” said Jaworski.
Jaworski explained that she was in the right place at the right time when Neurosport Physical Therapy reached out to her and her partners at NorthShore Orthopedic Institute and asked her to become the medical director. She added, “I have a strong interest in dance and have taken care of a lot of dancers in the community.”
Though the Hamilton cast is mainly adults, she’s also worked with young dancers involved in other performances.
At what age do back problems begin?
Jaworski said people are specializing in their particular sport and/or dance technique very early on. No longer does the dancer take all different types of classes, but they focus on Irish dance, ballet or even things like competitive cheer and poms.
“In my patient population it’s not unusual to see a 14- or 15-year-old girl with a herniated disc in her back,” she said. As a preventative, her practice encourages traditional athletes to cross-train, get enough sleep and eat right.
She’s concerned that adolescent dancers are trying to balance school with the demands of their dance program. Jaworski emphasized the importance of getting up at the same time every day if possible. “Keeping on a schedule tends to work better for the body, but sleep is sleep,” she said.
Jaworski also recommended that dancers focus early on taking better care of their bodies from a nutritional standpoint. “They should treat their bodies as part of their sports equipment and make sure that they’re getting a good range of different vitamins and minerals through food preferably, as supplements, powders, shakes and bars are more of a secondary choice,” said Jaworski.
Jaworski warned that dancers should be mindful of ignoring symptoms and soldiering through the pain. She said to see a doctor if you’re limping or something hurts due to a particular position, or swelling and bruising could be signs of a more serious injury like a muscle tear or a fracture that may worsen over time.
At the first sign of any soreness or pain, the practice recommends icing for the first 48 hours.
Of course you don’t have to be a professional dancer to incur injuries, and common sense applies.
Do you have any tips to prevent injuries among average women who are dancing in heels at weddings and other parties?
“Wear shoes you’re comfortable in even if they’re high, make sure you can walk in them,” said Jaworski. “And always be aware of your alcohol consumption, because it sometimes gets the best of people.”
For dancers 18 and younger who have no interest in slowing down, Jaworski said there’s research that shows your risk of injury goes up when you are doing any activity, any sport or athletic endeavor more hours per week than you are years old. For example, if you’re 12 and you’re dancing 20 hours a week, your risk for injury is exponentially increased.
“I have that conversation with all of my young dancers and athletes not to say that they have to stop doing what they’re doing if they’re healthy and not having chronic problems with injuries,” she said. “Sometimes kids just need to take a bit of a break.”