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Ballet Talk for Dancers

Recovery from ankle surgery


Finou

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Hi fellow dancers, I'm new here. I'm an adult dancer and I am looking for other people who have had ankle ligament reconstruction surgery.

I did modern jazz for more than 30 years and had to stop after a bad sprain whose seriousness was not detected fast enough, and which was not treated properly. I finally started dancing again 5 years ago, modern dance and ballet, which I had never done before. Everything went fine at first, I even got to go on pointe! But I had several sprains, both before and after starting dance again, and gradually I felt that my stability was deteriorating. Last year, I could barely balance in retiré, let alone in arabesque or on demi-pointe. It also started having repercussions outside of dance; I felt apprehension even when walking in the street, I often tripped, and I ended up spraining my other ankle in April. Fortunately, the MRI showed there was nothing serious there.

In May, I had an appointment with an orthopedic surgeon about the ankle that was originally injured. That MRI was not good news. My ankle was literally hanging by one thread, since two of the ligaments were completely torn. I had surgery in mid-August. I was back home in the evening and allowed to walk, with crutches and a splint, the same day... although of course it was painful at first. I started physiotherapy 10 days after surgery, first at home, then with my usual physiotherapist who has treated me for a few years and who is awesome (as opposed to the other physiotherapists I had tried before, who barely treated my injuries and never took the fact that I was a dancer into consideration).

So now, basically, 10 weeks after surgery, I am allowed to do prolonged walks and my stability is just amazing. Physiotherapy is quite intense but also careful and gradual; she has me do several exercises for balance and strengthening, then 10 minutes of exercise bike and 10 minutes on the treadmill. So that's quite positive. On the other hand, my foot still hurts because it has not fully healed inside yet, and my knee is still bothering me (that's where they took the piece of ligament they grafted to the ankle). It's fine when my leg is straight, but the slightest twist is a little painful, for instance when I'm putting on socks. Pressure is also painful, not just where they opened below the knee, but also the knee itself and the side of the thigh.

I was expecting the recovery to be long, but I did not expect exactly what the after effects would be. I thought strengthening and stabilizing the ankle would be the main problem, and naively, I thought that I may be able to do floor barre after 2 or 3 months. But stability is not a problem at all, and even floor barre is impossible due to the pains in the knee and foot. Even if I see the gradual progress, it still seems so long, and I have no idea when I will finally be able to dance again. I miss it soooo much, it's horrible.

Does anyone have experience with similar surgery? Are the pains in the knee normal, and how long does it take for the foot to heal completely?

Thank you for reading my (long) story, and for your possible answers.

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Welcome to Ballet Talk for Dancers, Finou. We're glad you found us. 

It sounds like you've been trough the mill with your ankle & it's good that you've had surgery & rehabilitation - which sounds quite arduous!

Thing is, none of us can advise you on the prognosis. We are not medically qualified & we can't see you. It sounds like you've got a great medical care team, so you need to discuss this with your medicos. I hope you get some resolution of the pain - it must be worrying.

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I agree with Redbookish, the people who will be able to help you best medically are those who can see and treat you.

That said, emotionally and mentally, almost all dancers have faced an injury crisis at one point.  It can be very disheartening, and because most of us are results driven perfectionist A-type personalities of some sort, we want everything now!  It's ok to take time to heal, remember what major surgery you have had, how far you have come, and that everyone is different.  Do keep hounding you doctors and physios though - be persistent in telling them what is working, what is not, and what you are concerned about.  If they are not used to treating dancers then they may not be aware of movements you need to be able to do or strength that is required in odd places (we are a funny lot us dancers!)

I had knee surgery 20 years ago and the Dr's said "6-weeks recover". What they meant was 6-weeks until I could bumble around the house - I thought they meant 6 weeks till Grand Allegro!  It took me 6 months to get back to standing at the barre and I could barely demi-plie!  Getting clear on expectations and timelines might help your sanity, and just go one step at a time from there.  Even though it's tough, you're not alone.

 

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Thank you both for your replies, and I am so sorry for not responding earlier. I am struggling with my mental health at the moment, and getting things done is difficult.

I agree with you, only medical professionals can give me serious answers, and I am not expecting any from asking on a forum, especially as all cases are different. That's also what makes the situation difficult, because even the surgeon or the physiotherapist cannot give me definite expectations, only estimates (I gave so many details because not all surgeons have the same recommendations, for instance I was allowed to walk with a splint on the first day, while others have to wear a cast and are forbidden to walk for quite a long time).

All in all, the uncertainty is the hardest thing. I guess I just wanted to know if other people had had that kind of surgery and how it had gone for them, keeping in mind that their experience would not necessarily be mine. But you are right, I need to take time to heal and to remember that the aim is to come back better and stronger.

I can at least use this opportunity to remind all adult dancers here that you are allowed to be taken seriously as a patient and as a dancer, no matter your level, age, or body type. And also, you know your body better than anyone, and you know when something feels wrong. I would not be in this situation if doctors and physiotherapists had listened to me when I told them about certain problems I had consecutive to the first sprain (like pains in the Achilles tendon, or the fact that I could not bend my leg fully). Worst of all, until I found my current physiotherapist, no medical professional took me seriously as a dancer. Because I was only an 40-year-old amateur, they thought I could find another hobby (except that dancing is not just a hobby for me, it's literally my life) and it did not matter if I was never able to dance again. Even worse, they did not take dance into account during rehabilitation sessions. But physiotherapy should absolutely be adapted to each individual and their activities. I remember marvelling when my current PT explaining to an intern that I was a dancer and that my exercises had to be adapted, because the problems and objectives were not the same as for a non-dancer. She has also always supported me in my aim to continue dancing. When I told her that my adult class had decided to start pointe, I was expecting her to tell me that my ankle was too weak, that it would be impossible because of my weight, and other things I had heard from doctors in the past. Instead, she immediately said "Great! We'll do specific exercises!" I just love her.

In short, I wanted to say that we are all worthy of dancing, and we need to find medical professionals who believe (in) you. If they don't, then you can find someone else who will support you and help you.

Thank you again for the replies... and I guess I'll take things as they come, slowly but surely.

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I'm sorry you've had such a difficult road!  I admire how hard you are working to take care of your body and your health.  Thank you for sharing your journey with us.  I think others can benefit from hearing of your experiences and perspective.  And hang in there with the recovery!  What's the saying? The days are long but the years are short?  🙂

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I haven't had an ankle reconstruction surgery, but I can certainly empathize and commiserate about the uncertainty of recovering from a severe injury as an adult dancer.  I broke my knee (tibial plateau fracture) in Fall of 2020, and while it didn't require surgery, I was still non-weight-bearing for 8 weeks, on crutches for another 2-3 months, and in and out of PT for about 6 months total before I was really able to get back into ballet classes in a meaningful way.  Even then, it was a slow return - I only took beginner classes, and didn't do any turns or jumps, for a couple of months before progressively adding in more complex and demanding steps, and it was more than a year after my injury before I felt confident enough to do things like saut de chat or tour jete landing on the injured leg.

For me, the things that really helped were PT (of course) and, once my physio cleared me for it, virtual private lessons with one of the ballet teachers at my local company who is very good with teaching proper placement.  When she and I started working together, I could barely do a demi plie in parallel with both hands on the barre, but the progress week by week was really rewarding, and I actually think she helped me fix a lot of problems with my placement that I've been cheating for a long time - in many ways, I think I'm a much stronger dancer now than I was before the injury, so I have to be kind of grateful for that, even if the process to get there was Not Fun!  Anyway, I know each injury is different, and each recovery path is different, but I hope you have a similar experience and are able to come back stronger than before.

And absolutely yes to this:

Quote

I can at least use this opportunity to remind all adult dancers here that you are allowed to be taken seriously as a patient and as a dancer, no matter your level, age, or body type.

I had a really bad experience with a physical therapist 10 or 15 years ago, when I went in after pulling my hamstring during warm-up for a Nutcracker performance.  They basically assessed my hamstring flexibility (I could barely raise my leg to above about 70 or 80 degrees) and said, "it looks fine, I'm not sure why you think you need to work on it."  I mean, sure, maybe that's fine for a non-dancer, but for a dancer???  That attitude continued throughout all of my sessions with them, and I only made it a month or two before I gave up on going.  By contrast, when I started with my current PT (who is the head PT for top-20-ish US ballet company), she assessed my hamstring flexibility (at that point, reaching ~100-120 degrees or so) and said, "for ballet, we need to work on that!".  I also at one point commented to her that, as someone who is purely a recreational adult dancer at this point, I felt a little silly seeking PT for injuries that are holding me back at ballet when they have literally no impact on my day-to-day life.  Her response was basically that if it's something that's important to me and helps keep me active, then we should work on it, which is just... so refreshing.

Anyway, just thought I'd chime in because there was a lot that resonated with me in this thread.  @Finou, I hope you continue progressing back toward full form, even if it is a long road, and for any other adult dancers dealing with major injuries, I'm cheering for you too!

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1 minute ago, athena_wiles said:

Her response was basically that if it's something that's important to me and helps keep me active, then we should work on it, which is just... so refreshing.

 

That's wonderful! And, as Finou says, it can sometimes be a problem. I think we need to advocate strongly for ourselves as adult dance students, in the same way that if you were a serious amateur golfer or tennis-player (physical activities which are more "normal" for adults) you would be taken seriously.

In the absence of a dance specialist physio, I find sports physios will take an adult seriously, if you frame your dance studies as "athletic" or "sport" related (we know they're not). 

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On 10/29/2022 at 10:43 AM, InTheWings said:

I'm sorry you've had such a difficult road!  I admire how hard you are working to take care of your body and your health.  Thank you for sharing your journey with us.  I think others can benefit from hearing of your experiences and perspective.  And hang in there with the recovery!  What's the saying? The days are long but the years are short?  🙂

I didn't know the saying 😳 (I'm not a native English speaker), but I quite agree with it. That's what I keep telling myself.

On 10/29/2022 at 10:43 AM, InTheWings said:

I admire how hard you are working to take care of your body and your health.

Again, I don't want to venture too far into the subject of mental health, but I feel like physical and mental health are linked and this is an important time for me. The years I stopped dancing were also the years I suffered from depression, and it was obviously linked. Not only did the fact that I couldn't dance was a triggering factor, but there came a point when I did not even feel like dancing, and that was the absolute worst symptom of depression. I can still remember the pure joy I felt when I finally started dancing again and took part in the first annual performance of my school. Several people told me that I looked radiant on stage, and my mum, who know how difficult it had been for me, said she had seen me again as I had been years ago. It meant so much to me. And now, as I sit in bed with my leg up on a cushion and put cream on the scars from the surgery, I feel like I am taking care of my mind as well, like I am healing myself as a whole.

 

On 10/31/2022 at 8:57 AM, athena_wiles said:

For me, the things that really helped were PT (of course) and, once my physio cleared me for it, virtual private lessons with one of the ballet teachers at my local company who is very good with teaching proper placement.  When she and I started working together, I could barely do a demi plie in parallel with both hands on the barre, but the progress week by week was really rewarding, and I actually think she helped me fix a lot of problems with my placement that I've been cheating for a long time - in many ways, I think I'm a much stronger dancer now than I was before the injury, so I have to be kind of grateful for that, even if the process to get there was Not Fun!  Anyway, I know each injury is different, and each recovery path is different, but I hope you have a similar experience and are able to come back stronger than before.

Thank you for sharing your story. It does sound like a long, painful journey to recovery and dancing, and I am glad you had such great help on the way back to full health. I too agree that good things can come of difficult times. You can definitely come back stronger after an injury if you use the opportunity to go back to basics and change your bad habits. I was lucky enough growing up to have a wonderful jazz teacher, who took classes her whole life with Matt Mattox. She was (and still is) the kindest, most generous teacher, but also uncompromising with technique. She always, always insisted on proper placement, and that's something I feel some teachers don't do enough, maybe for fear that the children won't find it fun? Anyway, I still think of her corrections and tricks to this day, and they definitely help when I'm doing my balance exercises in PT. Going back to the basics is so important.

Coming back better and stronger also applies to the artistic side of dance. As I said above, I started dancing again after years of depression, and while I don't believe that all bad things are positive in the end, I do think that depression can be our mind and body telling us to stop, think about our lives, be aware of what's wrong, and try to find a better life. Before that, technique was the most important aspect of dance to me. It still is important, obviously, but I have changed. A good choreography to me used to be a difficult one, full of difficult steps, multiple pirouettes, big jumps... Now I don't care as much. I don't care if the choreography is simple, as long as I can enjoy and express myself. The same goes for dance classes. My current teacher does a modern class in which exercises are like mini choreographies, which is a more fun way to work on technique. As for ballet barre, I absolutely LOVE it, and it feels like meditation. I don't see it as boring, repetitive exercises, but as another form of dancing, in which you can put as much emotion and artistry as in a real ballet. It took years of not dancing to change something in me, unblock the fear of really expressing myself, and make me a better dancer.

As for PTs, it's a real shame that so many of them don't do their job properly. They are the cause of many injuries, not to mention patients who are discouraged because they don't see any real progress. I totally understand how relieved you felt when you finally found the right PT, but it's maddening that so many others don't understand adult dancers. I had a similar experience with PTs telling me "but you have a great balance! where's the problem?" and ignoring me when I tried to explain that actually, I did not. It was indeed refreshing to find someone who took me seriously... but it should not have been. Getting proper, personally adapted treatment should be obvious.

On 10/31/2022 at 8:57 AM, athena_wiles said:

Her response was basically that if it's something that's important to me and helps keep me active, then we should work on it

  

On 10/31/2022 at 9:01 AM, Redbookish said:

That's wonderful! And, as Finou says, it can sometimes be a problem. I think we need to advocate strongly for ourselves as adult dance students, in the same way that if you were a serious amateur golfer or tennis-player (physical activities which are more "normal" for adults) you would be taken seriously.

Yes, absolutely YES to that. That's something that not only PTs and medical professionals, but also people in general, should be more aware of. I don't count the times someone has asked me why I couldn't do swimming or yoga if I could not dance, and... no, that's not how it works. Dance is not a hobby, it's a passion. And when an activity is so important to you, it becomes vital to your physical and mental well-being.

Thank you for your encouragements and for sharing the story of your recovery.

 

 

 

 

On 10/31/2022 at 9:01 AM, Redbookish said:

In the absence of a dance specialist physio, I find sports physios will take an adult seriously, if you frame your dance studies as "athletic" or "sport" related (we know they're not). 

I never went to a sports physio, because I found my current PT and am not leaving her ever again. 😄 I did go to a sports doctor for my first sprain years ago. He was the one who prescribed an MRI after months of being told it was a minor sprain, and he was the one who told me it was actually a serious injury. Unfortunately, being a sports specialist did not make him more helpful. Actually, his first question when he saw the results of the MRI was "are you sure you want to continue dancing?" in a tone suggesting that there was not much hope. And when I said yes, he was not particularly encouraging. He did not suggest surgery (which I can understand, because it was more than 10 years ago and ankle surgery was much less common at the time unless you were a high-level competitor or professional), but he did not suggest anything at all except for regular PT, without recommending a specialist. He seemed more focused on my weight, which according to him was the source of my being unable to go back to dance and one of the main causes of the injury itself (from what I can remember of the precise moment I twisted my ankle, I don't see how my weight could have had such an impact). Needless to say, the few consultations with him did not help me and were probably in part responsible for me giving up a year later. Again, it is maddening to see medical professionals like that.

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