ACHILLES TENDINITIS: one of the most common injuries amongst ballet dancers. Act quickly before it threatens your career.
Learn how it starts and how to treat it. Many ballet dancers unknowingly feel the beginning symptoms of AT (Achilles Tendinitis) and do not catch it in time. Treating it early is key to avoiding taking time off, physical therapy, or even surgery.
WHAT IS IT?
Your Achilles tendon connects your calf muscle to your heel bone. And we all know how much we use our calf muscles. When you land a jump, it's what absorbs the force coming down. Every time you plié, relevé, flex or point, you're using it. Now you can imagine the amount of strain on this tendon throughout your career.
Achilles tendinitis (AT) is the inflammation of the Achilles tendon caused by overuse, excessive pronation, extra straining, or tightness. These factors can be the result of many things: sudden increase in one's training such as going to summer camp, developing bad and unknown habits, foot anatomy (abnormally shaped heel bones), or over-training (such as on a professional level). Typically, sufferers develop it from overuse on both a pre-professional and professional level. They key is catching it early.
HOW TO SPOT IT
Depending on the cause, you might feel the symptoms differently. You could feel pain at the base of the heel (where the tendon connects to the bone) or at the back of your ankle, further up. It may start as just a light ache during pliés, or a tender shot of pain when you point your foot. Sometimes it just feels as though that tendon is a little light or as if it's pulling even when you warm up. These are all early signs of tendinitis.
I developed AT twice during my career. The first time was following my summer intensive at age 15. I went from dancing 4-5 times a week, in 90 min classes, to dancing full days with breaks in between. This abrupt shift in levels of training and hours spent dancing caused both my heels to flare up with pain. I took some time off, and let them heel before jumping back into fall classes. I also alternated between heat and ice to flush out the inflammation.
Unfortunately, it came back during my adult years due to a bad habbit I had formed. I would feel pain in the back of my heel whenever I pointed my foot. My instructor pointed out that I was pointing my foot incorrectly in a tendu. Instead of going to the ball of my foot, pressing into the floor, and then pointing, I was going straight to my point and over-pointing my foot, causing heavy strain on the tendon. I started breaking down my tendus with her and for a few weeks, was only allowed to point to the ball of my foot, no further. This trained me to reuse my ankles, toes, and feet in a way that did not strain that tendon.
HOW TO TREAT IT
The good news is that AT will go away with proper treatment. I would start by asking an instructor or an expert if they can diagnose the cause of it. If it is something that can be corrected such as misalignment, incorrect technique, or a bad habbit, I would start there first. If overuse or excessive strain is the cause rather, try resting, icing, and consuming anti-inflammatory foods or drugs if necessary. Compression is also recommended, and certain ointments can help. Rolling out your foot on tennis balls or rollers can also help release the muscles encasing the tendon. Sometimes AT is caused by the dancer's anatomy, in which case surgery can resolve the problem.
HOW TO PREVENT IT
Here are some specific causes of strain and stress on the Achilles tendon that you want to avoid:
1. Forcing your turnout - can cause your feet to pronate
2. Failure to press heels into the ground following jumps - I'm guilty of this one.
3. Failure to rise completely to 3/4 toe in relevé
4. Wearing heeled shoes frequently
Here are some things you WANT to do:
1. Warm up!
2. Increase your flexibility: stretch your calves and your achilles tendons
3. Use "tendinitis ribbon" with elastic over that tendon
4. Pay attention to corrections regarding how you use your foot: how you roll through it onto relev, how you land on it, how you point it, etc.
I enjoyed writing this piece for you! I hope it was informative. Don't hesitate to ask us any questions :)!