A fine balance: Dance health at every age

dance healthWhen Amelia Maguire, now 17, started dancing at age 3, she coveted the cute costumes. She adored her teacher and seeing her dance friends, says her father Mark. But sometime between the toddler and teen years, Amelia fell in love with dance.

Like many young and enthusiastic athletes, Amelia embraced her sport with a passion “She was doing splits all of the time,” recalls her mother Jeanne. “I didn’t realize I should have said hold up — you’re doing too much.”

How to keep an aspiring dancer healthy

It’s likely that Amelia, who was 9 years old at the time, was engaging the wrong muscles during her repeated stretching.

As children are growing and developing, their growth plates (the cartilage at the end of long bones) are vulnerable to injury. Repeated activity can overwhelm a young dancer’s ability to heal and may lead to bony and soft-tissue injury during this vulnerable time, says Dr. Andrea Stracciolini, director of the Boston Children’s Hospital Performing Artist Athletes Program.

dance medicine

Amelia’s enthusiasm caught up with her in her early teen years. She started having hip pain at 13.

Jeanne brought her to the Boston Children’s Hospital Dance Medicine Section, where Stracciolini and Dr. Ellen Geminiani paired up to treat the aspiring dancer.

They diagnosed Amelia with hip tendinitis and prescribed cortisone injections and iontophoresis, a battery-operated patch that delivered anti-inflammatory medication straight to the spot of Amelia’s pain.

The goal of the treatments was to help to loosen Amelia’s muscles and tendons and relieve the tension in her hip flexor.

Stracciolini and Geminiani also referred Amelia to their dance-medicine colleague  Michelina Cassella Kulak for physical therapy.

Physical therapy for dancers

“I had seen three other physical therapists. Mickey showed me different exercises and told me things I didn’t know,” recalls Amelia. Cassella Kulak taught Amelia how to engage other muscles so she didn’t strain her hip flexors. She also realized Amelia had very tight hamstrings and prescribed exercises to help loosen them.

Physical therapy, cortisone and iontophoresis all worked together to relieve the hip pain, but Amelia and Stracciolini agree that physical therapy can be a challenge for young dancers.

Neo _crop

“The biggest struggle with physical therapy is learning to use other muscles,” says Amelia.

Stracciolini adds, “Engaging the hip stabilizers and deep core musculature can be very challenging to young dancers. Physical therapists and dance teachers are pivotal in teaching and training dancers to use these muscles.”

Most recently, early in 2016, an MRI showed a small labral tear in Amelia’s right hip. “It’s common in dancers even with normal hip anatomy due to use patterns in dance. We don’t recommend surgery to repair the tear for dancers who plan to continue dancing because the re-tear rate is high,” explains Stracciolini.

Amelia’s next moves

dance medicineAnd Amelia certainly plans to continue dancing. After being cast in demanding roles in The Nutcracker in the last few years, she will perform lead in The Nightingale with Commonwealth Ballet Company in March 2016.

“There is always the difficult balance of training and rehearsing, just enough but not too much,” says Jeanne.

Finding that balance also becomes apparent during summer programs when students take multiple 90-minute classes each day for several weeks.

“Knowing when to push and when to sit back can have major impact on your experience. Part of the culture of dance is learning how to best take care of yourself,” explains Jeanne. Amelia, with the help of her parents and partners in Boston Children’s Dance Medicine Section seems to have achieved that balance.

Amelia and Jeanne will speak at Boston Children’s  Dance Symposium on April 30.

Learn more about Boston Children’s Dance Symposium.

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