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New MRI Method Keeps Dancers On Their Toes

September 6, 2010
Written by: , Filed in: Diagnostic Imaging, Musculoskeletal Radiology
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When a ballet dancer goes en pointe, what does that do to her feet and legs? How does balancing her entire weight on the tips of her toes affect the bones, joints, and soft tissues?

We’re starting to find out, thanks to a new MRI technique developed by Jeff Russell, PhD, an assistant professor of dance science at the University of California, Irvine. Dr. Russell and colleagues rotated an open MRI table into a vertical position so it could scan dancers as they stood upright. Adjustable wooden blocks supported the dancers’ feet and aligned their ankles to the scanner.

Despite the supporting blocks, the scans were no waltz in the park for the nine dancers who participated. They had to stand still en pointe for two and a half minutes. The study’s results appeared recently in the journal Acta Radiologica.

Dancers’ feet and ankles have been extensively imaged, usually as a result of all-too-common injuries. But those images have shown the aftermath of the strains that dancing places on the body, not the feet and ankles during the actual en pointe position itself.

Early results show that anatomical damage and stresses don’t necessarily correlate to pain sensations reported by the dancers, indicating that dancers may process pain differently from nondancers.

Dr. Russell has great respect for dancers. A UC Irvine news release quotes him as saying:

The physical rigors of ballet are as great as in any other sport, and participants have the injury rate to prove it.

He should know; he was an athletic trainer before, in 2002, a ballerina limped straight from rehearsal, still in her leotard, into the sports medicine clinic where he worked. “She was in such pain that she walked right into what was probably an intimidating environment,” he said.

Dr. Russell diagnosed a damaged Achilles tendon and put her on a course of therapy and training exercises that led to her recovery. Other dancers began showing up at the clinic. Dr. Russell became intrigued with the demands that their art placed on their bodies and changed his career course.

Now, at UC Irvine, he runs a clinic in the dance department and leads a team of student researchers who study dance-related injuries and how to prevent and treat them. “Dancers endure long rehearsal periods and repetitive body movements,” Dr. Russell said. “They also tend to have a higher pain threshold and tolerance for pain than nondancers. Consequently, they experience a lot of injuries.”

Shannon Slagle, a senior dance major at the school, said Dr. Russell has inspired her to pursue a career in physical therapy once her professional dance life takes its final bow. “A lot of times, people don’t realize how strenuous dance is,” she said. “The goal is to make it look effortless and work past the many physical challenges that come up.”

Related seminar: Musculoskeletal MRI

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