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  • Jennifer Milner

When Should You Listen to Your Doctor?

So I’m not a doctor. I know waaay less than they do. At the same time, I know a lot more than the average dancer, having studied dance medicine and injury prevention for many years now, learning from some of the best in the field. Which might be why the dancers who train with me often come to me with questions about their health and their issues. I frequently have dancers say things like, “My doctor said I may have to be in the boot for two months - what do you think?” Or, “My doctor said I should do the surgery. Is that right?” And also - “My ankle feels better but my doctor thinks it’s not fully healed. Is that true?”

In other words, “When should I listen to my doctor?”

The short answer? “Always."

Doctors can be hard to talk to, I know. The time with them feels so rushed and you never think of all the questions you want to ask until you’ve left the room, and then you’re unsure what you should do, because doctors rarely tell you anything so black-and-white as “If you keep dancing you will never walk again.” It’s more like, “I think the best course of action is to try a boot for two months and see where we are after that.” And in your head you think, “But what if I DON’T try the boot? What’s the worst that could happen? I mean, he didn’t FORBID it! And if I wear the boot can he PROMISE it'll be better in two months?”

I know you don’t want to hear it when your doctor gives you news that’s not what you wanted to hear. And sometimes you ask yourself, “Do they really understand what I do? I mean, do they get how strong and body smart I am? Do they understand dance in general, and what’s on the line here if I don’t do ‘it’?”

Which is why the long answer to that earlier question? Is “Always. If you’ve done your homework.”

If you need to see a doctor, make sure it’s someone who has worked with dancers before. Ask your friends/trainer/company director for a referral. Do all your research BEFORE you walk in the room, so that once you’re there you can trust that he or she knows what he or she is talking about, and you can leave yourself in good hands. A big part of my own job is knowing when something is outside the scope of my practice: I may be able to help someone tape up a sore ankle, but I also know when to tell them to get it looked at. My referral circle is a big part of what I do - I have a list of excellent doctors, physical therapists, chiropractors, and more that I can refer out to with confidence.

And if one of them told me to do something? I’d do it. Even if I didn’t want to.

A dancer I train fell during class recently and hurt her ankle. After giving her a few days to see if it would feel better with no luck, I encouraged her to go see a doctor. She smiled politely and put it off. A couple weeks later, she still hadn’t gone, and she had a show coming up in three days. “I promise, Jennifer, I will go see the doctor as soon as the show is over.”

“Why wait?” I asked. “What difference will it make?”

“I’m afraid he’ll tell me not to dance this weekend.”

And there it is - the thing no doctor can fight against: a dancer’s stubborn tendency to Not Want To Know.

I told my dancer: NOT going to the doctor won’t change the reality of her ankle. It won’t affect whether or not she SHOULD dance that weekend. The situation exists irregardless of the information she chooses - or doesn’t choose - to seek out. Her ankle injury was or wasn’t serious, and a doctor’s diagnosis and recommendation wouldn’t change that.

It would only change how quickly it got better.

The doctors I refer out to aren’t family practice physicians. They’re specialists, and they’re very good at what they do, and they are constantly researching and reading up on new studies and doing whatever it takes to stay on top of the dance medicine field. They aren’t going to tell you not to do something without a good reason.

Here’s a good example: I was once doing A Chorus Line, a very dance heavy show, and hurt my back in the middle of nowhere, something similar to an injury I’d had before. The only doctor I could find took one look and told me I should stop doing anything that “made me bend over” or any “lifting of the leg” and that I should go on bed rest for a couple weeks.

Hmph. Not at ALL what I’d done before for a back issue, and my gut told me lying still wasn’t going to help. I called a few long-distance medical friends and we put together a plan to hold me together until I got back to a big city. That doctor? Had never worked with a professional dancer, and I had a deep rolodex I trusted to help me figure things out.

In contrast, I was assisting at a world gymnastics event a couple years ago when one elite gymnast fell from the uneven bars and landed on her neck, temporarily unable to move. The competition halted and I trailed the doctor as he crawled gingerly out onto the mat to speak with the gymnast and start an exam. He had her carefully moved, did a thorough exam, and pronounced her able to compete just a couple hours later. After she fell on her NECK.

This doctor is someone who is used to working with athletes, has extensive experience with dancers, and knows what it’s like to patch up a pro hockey player and get him back out on the ice. So when he tells one of my dancers he thinks she should wear a boot and take a couple months off, to me, there’s no debate.

Put on the #$@* boot.

So when things start to go wrong, find a doctor you trust and then listen to her. If your gut says the doctor is missing something, it’s ok to go for a second opinion somewhere; just don’t start doc-hopping until you find one outlier willing to say what you want to hear. If you’re considering disregarding a doctor’s advice, ask him to fill in your “what-if” scenario for you, so that if you do decide to put off that FHL surgery, at least you’ll understand what you’re risking and go into the thing with your eyes wide open. Ask about options, ask about physical therapy, ask about alternative treatments - but trust her to know what she’s talking about.

I regularly send dancers to that doctor from the gymnastics meet. They come to me with a sore whatever and I’ll hem and haw and finally say “I’d go get that checked,” because I? Am not a doctor. And nine times out of ten, he’ll politely call me later and say it’s no big deal and she’s fine to keep dancing, and here’s what he wants me to work on with her to get it better. Which is a call HE is capable of making, not me, and I’d always rather have a diagnosis in hand than try to stumble forward with someone, blindly guessing at what’s going on. Get a diagnosis, get the information, and you can make whatever decision you want. Just make an informed one.

Doctors aren’t trying to make your life miserable. Honest to goodness, they’re trying to make your life better. Let them.

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