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Ballet Talk for Dancers

Big Toe Questions


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I've had fairly benign bunions for a long time without it being an issue. But in a remarkable display of synchronicity, a number of things have come together to make me work on my feet much harder. A few months ago one of them started to be painful in class; I got a great insight into proper weight placement at dance camp; my teacher corrected some rolling in which I though had been fixed; I started taking a modern class (without my toe spacers); I started taking a beginning pointe class (in flats!); and the massage therapist said he wanted to increase my arch and straighten the big toe.


So now I am working much harder at not rolling in, getting my arch higher and *all* my toes on the floor, and trying to get my demi-releve up higher. I've started taping the bad toe to pull it straighter in class, which after a somewhat painful start is helping. And I'm regularly manipulating the toe for range of movement.


I've begun to realize that in this new alignment my big toe won't bend back far enough to get the releve that the rest of my foot - or my other foot - is capable of. It seems to be a hard limit with a sharper pain than what I associate with stretching, so I don't think it's the FHL tendon that is the limiting factor.


My question is, what if anything can be done to increase this flexibility? Is it reasonable to keep pushing the limit, as one would do with stretching? What am I missing?


Thanks for any ideas!

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I have a similar problem, Olddude. Here's what I've cobbled together from various internet sources (bear in mind, I have no expertise and have not consulted anyone who does, so take this with a grain of salt!)


Flexibility in the big toe joint can be improved in most cases. Often, it's caused by tension in the muscles in the arch, particularly the flexor hallucis brevis, so self-massage with a tennis or golf ball can help. You can also stretch it by flexing your toes against the wall and gently raising your heel. The stretch in the arch when you do this will be sharper-feeling than most stretches because it's a fascial, more so than muscular, stretch. This is okay, and you can keep stretching as long as it's not painful. However, if you feel limitation or pain in the MTP joint itself when you do this, Hallux Limitus is a possibility and continued stretching could aggravate it.


Here's some information on Hallux Limitus: http://www.ourhealthnetwork.com/conditions...lluxLimitus.asp . As for the "fascial" stretch, I believe that came from somewhere on Lisa Howell's website.

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Hi Olddude- the way my foot is structured, I too never properly bent my big toes until I took up ballet fairly rrecently. I also did some research and found that if there is a true joint restriction (say from arthritis) at the first metatarsal phalangel joint, then stretching it can make it worse and make it become rigid. Also if there is a simple boney restriction at that joint, forcing it will hurt it. I was also concerned over these things and wasn't sure what the situation with me was. At this point I am pretty sure there is no joint restriction from arthritis (none has shown up on xrays) but I do suspect some bone restriction ie, just the way I am made, but I'm not sure and it is not that much.


Anyway, a couple of tips I have learnt that I would like to share:


1)when bending the big toe, make sure you keep the actual metatarsal phangel joint on the ground- for the longest time I was lifting it off the ground and stretching the area between it and the toe pad- I guess it also is tight but for demipoint that is not where the focus should be.


2)in bending the big toe at the actual metatarsal phangel joint, make sure you are not pronating at the ankle in order to do so- or at least be aware of this tendancy. This was another mistake I was making- also in my fight to releve higher and higher on demipointe, I was pronation/twisting around the ankle/mid-foot. I am still undecided what I will do about this- it is subtle, and I am not convinced it is bad for me, but just be aware.


3)when bending, I personally feel the stretch just proximal (closer to the body) from the actual joint- not/never IN the joint (I don't even really know what that means). I asked a podiatrist about this and he said that is an ok area to feel it- that is just muscle. There have been times when I have felt a sharp pain on the TOP of my toe- I can't reproduce it right now but that frightened me and I stopped doing whatever was causing it- I think lifting the metatarsal phalangel joint off the ground and keeping the toe pad on the ground- so it felt like a jamming between the phalanges on the top- I think that is a bad area to feel anything. I also used to get some dorsal tingling when doing this- so again, make sure to keep the actual joint on the ground.


4)finally something I have recently discovered- (so I am not sure if I will keep doing it). I just bought a 1/2 foam roller and I do prances on top to warm/stretch my calves. Well, if I stretch my big toe joint while standing on top of this foam roller, it feels really lovely but curiously if I go too far I will actaully feel the flexor hallux longus tendon as it wraps around my ankle! I think that is probably bad so I use that as an indication of when to back off. But the prances on the foam roller feel wonderful- though I think a ballet teacher may take issue with it, not sure. Again, be aware of the tendancy to pronate while doing this (it's a cheating way to feel like you are bending the big toe more)



ps- I was reading your posting over in Injuries regarding leg length discrepancy and your pelvic rotation (which I am assuming is twisting?) I was VERY curious over everything you wrote. I am wondering if you are still going to a chiro and how all that is going. I would love for you to post an update over there. I am thinking of going to a chiro but ofcourse I am scared to have anyone manipulate my spine. Once a week struck me as a lot.



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Thanks, Chihiro and Serrée. Very useful information which I have not found before!


Chihiro, the I looked up the FH Brevis and have begun to massage it; I can feel that there are two distinct sources of pain and it is one. That one I can probably fix with more massage including the surrounding fascia. If I go a bit further I can feel the "sharp pain on the top of the toe that Serrée describes.


Serrée, I understand what you are saying about pronating to get the toe on the ground - whether it's a cause or symptom, it's clearly (in my mind) associated with the bunion problem. I had FHL problems several years ago, fixed by a massage therapist - but that doesn't by itself strengthen the intrinsic foot muscles. The half foam roller sounds interesting - you place the ball of the foot on the high point, right?


I'll look for that thread and post an update.

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... I am wondering if you are still going to a chiro and how all that is going. I would love for you to post an update over there. I am thinking of going to a chiro but ofcourse I am scared to have anyone manipulate my spine. Once a week struck me as a lot....

Found that thread but it is more focused on leg length difference, which I don't think I ever really had. So I'll just comment here rather than diverge that thread.


I am still seeing the chiropractor weekly, and the massage therapist twice a month. And still taking more-or-less daily ballet classes of course! I feel there is some synergy among them, but I have no evidence to prove or disprove that. I do continue to make progress towards better alignment, as defined by my ballet teachers - I won't take anybody else's definition of that!


In my experience, chiropractic manipulations are aimed at moving joints that have become stiffened or "stuck". So I go to unstick them, allowing me to reform my habits - but I don't expect it by itself to produce any changes. A chiropractor may have some good ideas, but I would not rely on one for a diagnosis - as in many other areas of life, I have serious reservations about their theories. Statistically, it does help a lot of people, so if it works then it works. I think the massage work does a great deal more for me than the chiropractic, though again I have no evidence either way.


That said, I am lucky to have found excellent therapists of both sorts. That's probably more important than the kind of therapy they practice. I've tried a fair number of things, and only kept the ones that worked for me. People are different, and nobody but you can determine if it is working or not.

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....... My hips were rotated, once they were in alignment the lift was not useful and everything else is falling into place. Even my head is moving to center over the spine instead of sitting an inch or so to the left. In retrospect, I think this alignment problem goes back to childhood. Too bad I didn't get dance training when I was a kid!



Hi Olddude I am SO sorry to hyjack your thread here but this statement really jumped out at me!!! This could be me except my hips (pelvis) are (is) still rotated. So I was wondering if your pelvis was rotated about the vertical and wow, wow, wow, do you really think it is possbile to unrotate it? I have asked physios about this and they poo poo me saying lots of people are rotated but I really feel it is causing me problems. Otoh, I don't know if I am willing to get a chiropractor to adjust me once a week to keep them square but it sounds like you get other stuff done? Do you think your rotation is permanently fixed?




Anyway so sorry for the tangent- back to big toes.


I stand on demipointe on the top of the 1/2 foam roller- I think it feels so nice because it is cushy. I started doing that because I wanted to do releves off steps- to have the achilles stretch added but I didn't want to go outside on the steps and so I just tried doing it off the foam roller instead of hauling out the yellow pages. It is not so good for real releves but the prances are a really nice calf/achilles and big toe warmup. I hope that makes sense. I also cut my 1/2 foam roller in half with a bread knife and put 1/2 in front of the kitchen sinks and do prances and stretches when I am doing the dishes.




Also, I will add that after I originally posted I thought I should have said something about my own conclusion concerning my big toe- and then I thought no- forget it- it is off topic. But I will say it now. Personally I have pretty much given up ever properly balancing on my big toe on demipointe. Stationary releves at the barre- ok, but in the centre, no- it is just not the way my foot is constructed. And for pirouettes, I will most likely always be unstable because of my big toe. Maybe if I was younger and very serious- ok, maybe with lots of work...but I'm neither. I don't want to sound defeatist, which is why I didn't mention it before, but that is my conclusion. I have also dropped back to beginner level because of this issue- I refuse to continually fall out of pirouettes etc- I just feel it is unnecessarily hard on my feet.


The good news is I made a little orthotic to put in my slipper- I still haven't used it with the slipper in class but I have used it here at home. I have a depression for where the 2MTPJ is and an elevation for the 1MTPJ. I have to say I was absolutely awestruck the first time I releved on this- I think I could have had a cup of tea up there balanced on one leg- it was that stable- and I thought, wow, this is what it is supposed to feel like.


But that is my foot- how my foot works and my own conclusions for me. I still work on stretching my big toe because I also like to dance barefoot but I won't rely on that for ballet pirouettes.


edit to add:


oh gee and how could I have forgotton this- the very first exercise a physio gave me to increase range of motion in the big toe. Sit on a chair, cross right leg over left. Gently bend back big toe of right foot with right hand. Press (depress) the area immediately proximal of the 1st metatarsal phalangel joint with the thumb of your left hand. LOL, the first few times I did this it really hurt.I am laughing now becasue months later, I just did it now and I hardly feel it- so hmmm, I guess I stretched it!

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I can only give you a personal experience which is sorta similar. A while back (perhaps 7-8 years ago) I developed a pain in a joint very close to the big toe. My anatomy book says it was where the metatarsus meets the phalanges. Pain whenever that joint was flexed. Went to the doctor, had it x-rayed, and got a prescription for 500 mg naproxen. That helped a little, but didn’t really solve the problem.


I chalked it up to one of those old person things. God made a rule for older dancers—something has to hurt. Usually the hurt has no cause, responds to no treatment, and for no particular reason goes away only to be replaced by some other hurt. Anyway, I chose to just go on doing what I could manage to do.


After a while, since I seemed to be stuck with this malady, seemingly for life, I chose to get aggressive and just force the joint to flex ever so often while stretching. Of course that hurt, but I could always reduce the force when I felt like it, eliminating the ouch. Over time it became something of a pain tolerance exercise.


At the same time, of course there were other aches and pains (the back being a common place) and I was taking over the counter naproxen (220 mg) regularly for those aches and pains. In fact, the other hurts outweighed the toe hurt, so I pretty much forgot about it except for when I’d do that pain tolerance exercise.


What happened was that over time the toe pain vanished. It was so gradual that I didn’t even really notice that it had gone. Who knows why it got better. Perhaps it healed itself. Perhaps it was the naproxen taken over a long time. Perhaps it was years of doing the pain tolerance flexing. Perhaps it was just the old guy thing of distributing the hurt around.

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I chalked it up to one of those old person things.
God made a rule for older dancers—something has to hurt. Usually the hurt has no cause, responds to no treatment, and for no particular reason goes away only to be replaced by some other hurt. Anyway, I chose to just go on doing what I could manage to do.


Oh my goodness!!! My computer screen is splattered with coffee!!!!!! :firedevil: Thanks alot, Gary!!!!

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Serrée, no problem about hijacking - I think these things are all related. It was the massage therapy that fixed the rotation; the chiropractor just confirmed that it was happening. Whether you call it deep tissue or postural correction or myfascial release or something else is beyond my knowledge, but he worked on my hips and thighs for a couple sessions and things had moved. I think they stayed moved because I knew from ballet classes what to do with this new freedom.


Thanks for the PT massage/pressing thing - I can feel it, and it's not exactly where the bones meet, so it seems likely to help. And I'll get another foam roller and hack it in half!


Garyecht, thanks as always for sharing your extensive experience and thoughtful analysis. You give me hope! Since I started this beginning pointe class (in flats only!) and at the same time am doing things to straighten the toe, I am in fact pushing it to the edge of pain every week. I'll stop worrying about that and just do it for a while.

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Thank you very Much Olddude! I was told just yesterday to get "deep tissue massage" by a dance teacher! So that's it, I am sold-- she gave me the name of someone who works on dancers. Thank you so much, I really hope it helps.

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