Raising the Barre: Treating Ballet Injuries

When you take your seat at a performance of The Nutcracker, it’s unlikely you’re expecting the same experience as you would sitting ringside, cheering on your favorite wrestler. Besides the obvious comparisons, such as the possibility of seeing tutus at either event, the performers have one major characteristic in common: They are both athletes.

Ballet de Rigueur

While known for its apparent ease of demonstration, the practice of ballet is challenging and rigorous.

“Ballet can often come across as an idyllic form of art, free from pain and injury,” said Katie Brown in an article in Today’s Chiropractic LifeStyle Magazine. “While they perform with poise and refinement, these dancers experience many of the same physical strains and hardships of other athletes, which has led to chiropractic’s involvement in ballet.

“From injury prevention to recovery plans, chiropractic plays a vital role in the lives of many athletes. And when it comes to chiropractic care for ballet dancers, the ability to understand the injuries and difficulties they experience is only fully known by dancers themselves.”

Changement de Pieds

The article shares Brown’s interviews with two dancers who changed direction and became chiropractors after their ballet careers came to a close. 

At the age of 10, Janusz Mazon, DC was accepted into one of Poland’s four ballet schools and later won a gold medal at the National Polish Ballet Competition. A first soloist in such productions as “Sleeping Beauty” and “Swan Lake,” his career took him to Germany’s Hamburg Ballet. Though he never experienced large scale injuries as a dancer, when Mazon was treated with massage for slight trauma he incurred, the dancer was impressed by the practitioner “seeking alternative means to influence the human organism in its self-healing abilities,” he said.

While it inspired him later to begin a chiropractic career, Mazon’s past ballet experience remains central to his practice today. “Although dancers are probably one of the most physically conditioned groups of individuals, they are most often exposed to repetitive stress injuries, given the nature of their ongoing efforts to improve technical skills,” he said. “The difference in chiropractic care for dancers would be most evident in understanding the nature of their injuries and the underlying cause, which has to do with understanding ballet technique. Being able to correct technique not only helps the problem with immediate injury, but also prevents future flare-ups and improves dance quality.”

Paul Frame, DC also trained as a ballet dancer when growing up in West Virginia. He danced with the Ohio Ballet and attended the School of American Ballet in New York City. Frame’s talent took him to the New York City Ballet, where he danced for 10 years. 

His career wasn’t without injury. As a 20-year-old, Frame experienced lower back pain, reportedly a common condition for dancers. Frame’s colleagues had benefited from chiropractic treatment, so he decided to try it as well.

“Chiropractic isn’t just about pain, but that’s what I first needed it for,” Frame said. “I liked chiropractic’s technical aspect of figuring out what to do for a patient.”

Medical professionals seem to agree that for ballet dancers the repetitive stress is a common cause of injury.

“Dancers most commonly experience difficulty from overuse,” said Mazon, noting that repeated steps and lifts tend to cause:

  • Tendonitis
  • Muscle strain
  • Ligament strain

Other issues dancers commonly see include subluxation from muscular instability and issues with soft tissue and joints affecting the extremities.

Among patients who are dancers, Frame said treatment often involves the hip flexor and lower extremities, such as the knees, ankles and hips. He uses his dance background to better serve their needs. “I experienced a dancer’s life, so I tend to know dancers and their habits,” Frame said. “I know what they do that causes the injury in the first place. Are they stretching? Are they watching their posture? Are they icing? I am able to ask them these questions to help them prevent injuries in the future.”

Sometimes a dancer is his or her own worst enemy, mostly because it’s a big sacrifice to opt out of rehearsals and performances. An article in the Ballet News about chiropractic care for dancers in the UK shares the opinions of Camilla Ellis, DC, who described a dancer’s “propensity to keep going through injury, allied with their high pain threshold conditioned through years of intensive training.”

In the article, Ellis underscored the disadvantages of ignoring injuries. “The later you leave it the worse it is,” she said. “Get it looked at. You can keep training and having adjustments if you are at that ‘I’m not too bad but there’s something going on’ stage. I just hope people don’t miss their spot in the dance world through injury.”

Two common dance injuries Ellis treats are bone spurs and bunions. 

Bone Spurs

Pulling on the bone is the cause of bone spurs, Dr. Ellis said. “When the joint is out of alignment … it’s causing a muscle to pull at the wrong angle, causing the body to deposit bone,” she said. “So spurs occur because of the deposition of bone in a place that’s weakened. If you keep your spine well aligned, then it stops those spurs from occurring and building up.”


Image used under Creative Commons Licensing courtesy of The Chapman Cultural Center

Image used under Creative Commons Licensing courtesy of Larry Lamsa

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