Curiosity to Understand

I had the honor of being invited to Grand Rounds at Newton Wellesley Hospital this week to hear Dr. Lauren Elson speak on Performing Arts Medicine. Dr. Elson is a physiatrist and sports medicine physician at Spaulding Rehabilitation in Wellesley, Massachusetts. She is also a former professional dancer, and very involved in the national task force for Performing Arts Medicine to prevent dance injuries.

What a rare combination of art and science, and a gift to the Boston health care community!

Dr. Elson presented to her medical colleagues about the curiosity to understand an artist’s drive for perfection. Dancers, just like a doctors, never arrive at being perfect. There is always more to learn, discover and improve.

For dancers, vocation = identity. Being perfect is more important than physical condition. They will push through pain until their bodies make them stop.  Fear is always present. No matter how small an injury, one thought is always catastrophic: “what if I can’t dance again?”

Dr. Elson reported that most dance injuries are related to lack of cross training and that 65-78% are directly due to repetitive microtrauma. For example:

Did you know that the average ballet class contains 200 jumps, with 53% landing on one foot? That’s 12x bodyweight through one foot, over 100 times! (talk about repetitive microtrauma) Furthermore, an elite dancer has 113 degrees of plantar flexion and almost 0-10 degrees of dorsiflexion. Imagine landing a jump on that tight of a calf, repetitively?

Dr. Elson’s message: be curious about the specificity of movement associated with each genre of dance.  Even if you know nothing about Tap, Ballet, Modern, African Dance, Capoeira or Hip Hop, ask the patient to demonstrate what movements cause pain.  Taking a minute to connect to a patient’s artistry engenders trust.

I believe this approach should be adopted by anyone working in rehabilitation, whether physical therapy, massage, personal training or other modalities. Clinicians must be curious to understand movement demands of activities they are not familiar with themselves. Furthermore, taking time to understand the fearful thoughts associated with injury addresses the whole patient. From this connected interaction, patients will be more apt to listen, modify activity, heal and (hopefully) return to full function with increased confidence in the medical system.

Learn more about Dr. Elson at Boston Dance Alliance

Spaulding Rehabilitation Wellesley

International Association for Dance Medicine and Science