Ballet training can bring on pain and stiffness that does not go away in the muscle recovery period, which is rarely sufficient. Once a pattern of tension is established, a ballet dancer must follow a specific routine to reverse the harmful trend before arthritis sets in. Neck pain, back pain, and unresolved muscle tension will lead to ballet injuries if left untreated.
When a ballet dancer's core muscles are weak, or when a dancer is working an intense schedule without enough recovery time, where does the strain go? Often to the neck and shoulders.
Ballet dancers (and other style dancers) will typically work with increasing tension and strain, aching muscles, and mild pain, until the condition develops to the point of an acute and sharp neck pain. They will start to feel an extreme stiffness of their neck, having difficulty moving it in any direction. When the pain reaches its worst level, it might be accompanied by shooting pain down into both shoulders and perhaps even to the elbows.
This kind of discomfort may develop very gradually, so there is not necessarily personal neglect involved. Usually the pain is less in the morning, although the stiffness is noticeable. With additional time and attention given to warming up the neck and upper back, a good part of a heavy rehearsal day, starting with class, could be danced well with tolerance of the discomfort. Most likely, however, as the day goes on, the pain increases, often described as a "stabbing pain", with certain movements. The neck stiffness can return despite the dancer being warmed up. The strain becomes visible to others, watching or coaching.
At this point a dancer will be forced to take time out to seek professional help. Upon examination by a chiropractor, for example, it will be found that the back of the neck and mid back muscles are in tight spasm. The muscles under the chin may be in spasm as well, holding the head at a downward angle. The dancer easily understands that he/she has made this condition worse by working with the head not centered over the shoulders. (When the postural plumb line is violated in any way, extra muscle gripping will show up, as the body always finds a way to compensate and "balance" itself).
What is alarming is that, by viewing an x-ray of this kind of neck, it can be seen that the normal curve is not only decreased, but has reversed! And, quite distressing news to a young ballet dancer, the front of the middle neck bones may be severely degenerated, because of the chronic pressure on the front of them.
This curve reversal is all too common among classically trained dancers. Traditional ballet positions demand that the neck appear tall and straight. Although no harm is intended, the muscles along the front of the neck get stronger and stronger. This development straightens the neck bones, and continues through the years of training, until the normal curve reverses. The front of the neck bones actually start to grind, and gradually arthritis sets in.
The goal of chiropractic care would be to re-mobilize the neck bones that are locked in spasm, along with releasing the chronic tension of the shoulder and upper back muscles. Early treatment can prevent the development of the reversed curve, and eventual arthritis. The tight neck muscles can be relaxed and stretched, relieving the compression that reduces the natural curve. Massage, machine traction and a supportive pillow for sleeping can all contribute to chiropractic treatment, countering the harmful tendencies that have become a habit for the ballet dancer.
The neck of a ballet dancer can be held in a tall and slightly straightened position without leading to harm. All ballet students need to understand how to relax and stretch properly, as well as how to strengthen the core muscles to prevent neck strain and back pain. Education will prevent ballet dance injuries.
Take advantage of the available dance education and prevent dance injuries. There is so much information! Dance smart!
Deborah Vogel has posted more about this topic. Click here, click on the blog button at the top, and find the post - it is illustrated and you'll see a straight dancer's neck. If corrected, this neck will not proceed to the reverse curve condition.