Ballet dancing can do a great deal of damage to your feet, but most of the issues that ballerinas deal with do heal over time. The term “ballerina feet” is extremely broad, referring to a wide range of problems that can come from hours of dancing en pointe. Understanding the potential problems that are associated with ballet dancing can help you avoid permanent damage and care for your feet as best you can.
Common External Foot Injuries for Ballet Dancers
The friction, pressure, and confines of ballet shoes can cause many external foot injuries for ballerinas. These are typically treated with simple home care, such as covering blisters with mole skin or tape, cushioning corns with lambswool, or softening calluses with a pumice stone. You should avoid extreme treatments, such as cutting off calluses entirely.
Some of the most common issues ballerinas may see on their feet include:
- Bunions: A bunion is a bony protrusion that occurs at the base of the big toe. The bones shift so that the joint at the base of the big toe pokes outward and the tip of the toe moves inward. Small bunions known as bunionettes can also form on the joint of the little toe. This can cause swelling, soreness, redness, pain, and limited movement in the big toe. Gel aligners can help with the condition. In extreme cases, surgery may be necessary.
- Corns and Calluses: Corns and calluses develop as the skin thickens on the feet. Corns in particular can cause pain. Corns can become infected. Those with diabetes may suffer extreme complications such as nerve damage.
- Blisters: Blisters are fluid-filled pockets that develop under the top layer of skin. Blisters can become infected or lead to ulcers.
- Ingrown Toenails: Standing en pointe can cause the corner of the toenail to grow into the skin, creating an ingrown toenail. This causes swelling, redness, and pain. Left untreated, an ingrown toenail can cause a soft tissue or bone infection.
Common Internal Foot Injuries for Ballet Dancers
The extreme pressure and strain that feet undergo during ballet can lead to a number of internal injuries. If you’re experiencing any kind of foot pain, you should speak with a podiatrist. It’s best to work with a professional who is experienced in treating dancers. Some common internal injuries for ballerinas are:
- Ankle Sprains: Ankle sprains are the most common injury among dancers, as they can occur with a poorly executed jump or spin. This occurs when the ligaments on the inside or outside of the foot are twisted or stretched too far. Once you’ve sprained an ankle once, you’re more likely to do it again in the future.
- Torn Ligaments: An extreme sprain may cause the ligament to tear. A torn ligament will never fully heal to the condition it was in before the injury.
- Foot Fractures: Overuse and repetitive impact can cause foot fractures in ballerinas. Stress fractures are particularly common and tend to occur when the foot doesn’t have enough rest time for proper bone remodeling. Tenderness, swelling, and a progressive increase in pain are common indicators of this type of fracture. The dancer may need rest time, a cast, or surgery to heal.
- Plantar fasciitis: Plantar fasciitis is the ligament connecting the heel bone to the toes. This tissue supports the arch of the foot. Dancing for a long period of time can strain the plantar fasciitis causing swelling, pain, inflammation, and weakness. Special massage can speed the healing process for this condition.
- Metatarsalgia: This condition occurs when the ball of the foot becomes inflamed. Metatarsalgia in dancers often comes from spending too much time on pivot points. It may cause pain that ranges from the annoying sensation of having a pebble in your shoe to extreme shooting pains, tingling, and numbness in the toes. Orthotics, stretching, and rest are the most common treatment options.
- Hallus Rigidus or Limitus: Positions like a high relevé or full demi-point can make the bones in the big toe joint rub together, causing a condition known as hallus limitus or rigidus. This can also lead to the formation of bony spurs. Hallus limitus is a condition in which the joint at the base of the big toe is extremely inflexible. Hallus rigidus is a condition where this joint can no longer move at all. While nonsurgical treatments can reduce some of the pain and numbness caused by this condition, surgery is the only way to correct the deformity entirely.
- Sesamoiditis: Sesamoiditis is a form of tendonitis that causes pain in the ball of the foot. Sesamoids are tiny bones that are attached to tendons or muscles, but not to other bones. Often compared to jelly beans, these bones assist in moving the big toe. When the tendons holding the sesamoids are strained or overworked, it can lead to sesamoiditis which causes pain, swelling, bruising, and difficulty moving the big toe. Physical therapy and steroid injections may help treat this condition.
- Achilles tendonitis: The Achilles tendon runs from the bottom of the calf to the back of the heel. It contracts and releases with every plié and relevé. Inflammation of this tendon, known as Achilles tendonitis, is common among dancers. Strengthening the muscles in the legs and ankles can help you recover from this condition. In extreme cases where the tendon is torn, you may need surgery.
Foot Care for Ballet Dancers
Ballet dancers must care for their feet properly to minimize the risk of these conditions and ensure safe, comfortable dancing for years to come. The best thing that dancers can do for their feet is to get new shoes fitted often. The foot changes form in response to rigorous dancing. Shoes that fit well make a tremendous difference. You should also stay mindful of properly stretching, warming up, and monitoring your posture and movements.
If you’re experiencing trouble with your feet as a result of ballet, Dr. Schoene can help. With extensive experience treating dance-related injuries, Dr. Schoene can provide expert advice on treating and preventing ballet injuries.