Arthritis and Dance

Just finished 3 workshops in October and had such wonderful interactions with amazing teachers! So many great questions were asked and today’s newsletter was inspired by one of them (Thanks, Donna!)

We were discussing stiffness, fascia and came around to arthritis when I made a comment about how doctors throw out that diagnosis way too often for people over the age of 50 – and how I considered it a garbage pail diagnosis. Meaning… it doesn’t really tell you much about what to do – why you might have it and can it be reversed.

There are over 100 different types of arthritis, but the most common form is osteoarthritis and probably followed by rheumatoid arthritis. Rheumatoid arthritis is a chronic inflammatory disease where the immune system begins attacking the joint lining, causing pain and swelling that eventually results in bone and joint deformity. My mother and maternal grandmother had severe RA – and to be honest – they both strongly influenced my desire to be healthy with full mobility. Both of these strong women became totally bedridden. Some of the things I will mention in this article could be helpful with someone with RA or one of the many other types of arthritis – but what I want to address is the most common form of arthritis, osteoarthritis.

Osteoarthritis is the wear and tear degeneration of joint cartilage and bones. It causes pain and stiffness and is often first diagnosed in middle age. I’ve talked with numerous… a LOT… of dance teachers who were given the diagnosis of osteoarthritis even without the benefit of x-ray or MRI confirmations. The teacher goes in with complaints of stiffness or pain at the hip or knee, and comes out with a prescription for an anti-inflammatory medication and told to keep moving until the pain is too much at which time a joint replacement can be considered.

I want to address suggestions for this type of arthritis from a voice of reason. It’s how I like to approach working with someone’s chronic injury. How many different ways can health be positively influenced?

Dancing along with many other sport forms asks a lot of the body! What we know is that when the body is anatomically aligned the weight is appropriately transferred through the centers of the joints. This is why it is uber important that our students learn how to work their turnout accurately in the hip joint rather than pushing rotation, tucking under, shifting the head of the femur up against the cartilage of the joint where joint disfiguration will occur.

But it isn’t just how they are working their rotation in class it’s even more about their daily standing, walking, sitting and sleeping patterns that can plant the seeds (or not) towards future osteoarthritis. Alignment matters… and even more so outside of class! (note the image on the right is not well-aligned, lots of people typically stand on one leg and unknowingly influence their fascia, their muscles and joints!)

All types of arthritis have an inflammatory factor. What are ways to decrease inflammation in the joint? We just talked about having good structural alignment as the first focus. Secondly, I would look to food to try and decrease inflammation. I have never been an advocate as a one-size-fits-all approach to food. We have different chemistries and respond differently to food. Some people can eat bread – and others are better off being gluten free, which then can decrease inflammation.

Sugar and high-fructose corn syrup are definitely high up on the inflammatory food charts along with artificial trans fats, refined carbohydrates, excessive alcohol, processed meat. There is a reason that when I worked at the Center for Dance Medicine we would see a spike in achey bodies and joints in January after holiday food splurging.

It’s all about balance, right? For most people it doesn’t mean you can’t ever have chocolate, but it shouldn’t be the top food group you take in to fuel your body. Inflammation doesn’t just happen at your joints, but also in your gut. I recently did a gut test ( to look at what good and bad bacteria was in my gut and found out one of my inflammatory foods is coffee. (imagine a very sad face:) Now I have a cup of coffee maybe once a month, rather than my one cup a day… and yes… I notice a difference in my gut health. The test also encouraged me towards certain foods to get a better balance and population of certain probiotics, so it wasn’t quite as simple as taking one food out of my daily diet.

It takes time for inflammation to decrease. Besides becoming aware of the food (fuel) you are ingesting, getting good exercise for yourself (beyond teaching class) losing weight if need be, and managing stress (which means getting an appropriate amount of sleep too!) all will influence inflammation.

I want to add one more suggestion and that is to keep your fascia in good condition, elastic and responsive. To that end, proper alignment is key, but we also need to maintain the resiliency of our fascia, so that we don’t start feeling stiff and sore.

When I get the occasional bloodwork done I ask if I can add testing my C-Reactive protein level. This protein increases as inflammation increases. If you find that you are on the high side, even without physical ailments, it would be a good choice to lower the silent increase of inflammation before it shows up in some physical or physiological disorder or disease. Inflammation is connected with many diseases, not just arthritis.

And all inflammation isn’t bad… the inflammation that occurs after an injury is a good thing and a part of the healing process. But chronic inflammation is NOT helpful or useful.

So there you go… I’m probably preaching to the choir on this one… but thought it might be interesting to look at arthritis from a broader perspective of how to change the health of our joints.

To your success!