It's True: Women Experience Pain Differently Than Men Do

Doctors tend to underestimate women's pain more often than men's. Photo by Quinn Wharton

Pain is an inevitable part of a dancing life and dancers have a high tolerance for it, according to Sean Gallagher, a New York physical therapist whose practice includes many professional performers. "So when dancers complain, it really means something," he says.

But women and men experience pain differently, and tend to be treated for it differently as well. Female dancers need to understand those differences before they go to a doctor, so they can make sure they get treated promptly and effectively.


Several years ago, The Journal of Pain published a study that found that women are at a greater risk than men of developing chronic pain conditions. A recent Stanford University study, also published in The Journal of Pain, found that women actually experience pain more intensely than men. And a landmark report published by the Institute of Medicine, part of the National Academy of Sciences, determined that doctors tend to underestimate women's reports of pain more often than men's.

So what should a female dancer do?

Be prepared for doctors who might dismiss your pain. Photo by Oles Kanebckuu/Stocksnap


If she minimizes her pain to protect her career, which some dancers feel they must, she likely will be under-treated. Even if she reports her pain accurately, there's a good chance that a doctor's gender bias, however unconscious, may mean she does not get the help she needs.

"I see the gender gap for pain in my practice," says Elizabeth Manejías, a dance medicine physician at Hospital for Special Surgery's Integrative Care Center in New York City. "And the longer you have pain, the more your brain and nervous system become used to having that pain, and the cycle of pain becomes more challenging to interrupt. Early diagnosis can help."

Gallagher and Manejías have several suggestions to help female dancers get early and optimal treatment.

See An Expert

If you are not in a locale where it's easy to find a dance medicine doctor, your next choice should be someone with a sports medicine concentration. "Look for a doctor who works with ice skaters or gymnasts, since they are familiar with the repetitive-use injuries that resemble dance injuries," says Gallagher. "If the doctor just tells you to stop dancing, get another opinion."

Prep For Your Appointment

You only have so much time in front of the physician, so make it count. "Write down your questions and key points in your pain history to help stay focused during your visit," says Manejías. "If you don't understand the physician's approach, ask for a further explanation."

Request Physical Therapy

If you end up seeing an internist or family doctor who does not have expertise in treating dance or sport injuries, make sure you ask for a prescription for physical therapy. "It's the physical therapist who understands how your movement relates to your pain," says Gallagher.

Get A Referral

You are not the first dancer to be in pain. This is the time to utilize your network. "Dancers should reach out to other dancers or teachers who have had a positive experience with a particular physician," adds Manejías. Gallagher also recommends the web as a resource, noting that the American Physical Therapy Asso­ciation lists PTs by region and that IADMS can help you find a dance medicine specialist in your area.

Technique
Nan Melville, courtesy Genn

Not so long ago, it seemed that ballet dancers were always encouraged to pull up away from the floor. Ideas evolved, and more recently it has become common to hear teachers saying "Push down to go up," and variations on that concept.

Charla Genn, a New York City–based coach and dance rehabilitation specialist who teaches company class for Dance Theatre of Harlem, American Ballet Theatre and Ballet Hispánico, says that this causes its own problems.

"Often when we tell dancers to go down, they physically push down, or think they have to plié more," she says. These are misconceptions that keep dancers from, among other things, jumping to their full potential.

To help dancers learn to efficiently use what she calls "Mother Marley," Genn has developed these clever techniques and teaching tools.

Keep reading... Show less
Teachers Trending
Alwin Courcy, courtesy Ballet des Amériques

Carole Alexis has been enduring the life-altering after-effects of COVID-19 since April 2020. For months on end, the Ballet des Amériques director struggled with fevers, tingling, dizziness and fatigue. Strange bruising showed up on her skin, along with the return of her (long dormant) asthma, plus word loss and stuttering.

"For three days I would experience relief from the fever—then, boom—it would come back worse than before," Alexis says. "I would go into a room and not know why I was there." Despite the remission of some symptoms, the fatigue and other debilitating side effects have endured to this day. Alexis is part of a tens-of-thousands-member club nobody wants to be part of—she is a COVID-19 long-hauler.

Keep reading... Show less
Teachers Trending

Annika Abel Photography, courtesy Griffith

When the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis last May catalyzed nationwide protests against systemic racism, the tap community resumed longstanding conversations about teaching a Black art form in the era of Black Lives Matter. As these dialogues unfolded on social media, veteran Dorrance Dance member Karida Griffith commented infrequently, finding it difficult to participate in a meaningful way.

"I had a hard time watching people have these conversations without historical context and knowledge," says Griffith, who now resides in her hometown of Portland, Oregon, after many years in New York City. "It was clear that there was so much information missing."

For example, she observed people discussing tap while demonstrating ignorance about Black culture. Or, posts that tried to impose upon tap the history or aesthetics of European dance forms.

Keep reading... Show less

Get Dance Business Weekly in your inbox

Sign Up Used in accordance with our Privacy Policy.