Back on Pointe: Parkland Medical Center’s Dance Therapy Program Has All the Right Moves

Female dancer doing dance leap

All eyes are on Rio for the upcoming 2016 Summer Olympics. While everyone awaits the opening ceremony, the spectacle of competing Olympians, and a sea of cheering fans, young performance athletes in New Hampshire are perfecting their craft and staving off injury – perhaps for a collegiate, amateur or professional future – with the help of HCA Healthcare’s Parkland Medical Center.

Elizabeth Sciola, an orthopedic physical therapist in the hospital’s rehabilitative services department, started the Back on Pointe program 10 years ago to serve dancers, gymnasts, ice skaters and cheerleaders. So far, they have served approximately 150 performance athletes ranging from 10 to 18-years-old, and a few retired professional dancers, too.

“I noticed many of the dancers I was seeing had been enduring pain for years,” Sciola, a former dancer and rhythmic gymnast, said. “They either were afraid to admit they were in pain because they didn’t want to sit out or they couldn’t tell the difference between pain and the normal aches and discomfort associated with their sport.”

The delay in care caused the athletes’ injuries to worsen, she said, and took them longer to heal. She wanted to find a way to get the dancers and other performance athletes into care sooner and help prevent common, overuse injuries. The result? Back on Pointe.

Dance therapy programs like Back on Pointe are rare. Patients travel upwards of 45 minutes for treatment at this specialized physical therapy program at Parkland Medical, which receives referrals throughout New England. Sciola and her team of licensed rehabilitation therapists also have developed relationships with local dance studios to serve as a resource for instructors, too.

A 20-year veteran dancer herself, Sciola knows the toll it can take on your body. “Dancers in our program find it invaluable to have a physical therapist who understands the intricacies of the repetitive movements, not just for dancers, but for any performance athlete,” she said.

While the majority of patients in Back on Pointe are dancers, the program also treats those athletes – gymnasts, ice skaters and cheerleaders – who are prone to overuse and stress injuries due to rhythmic motions.

The first thing we do is determine the cause of the overuse injury,” Sciola explained. “Patients will receive a biomechanical evaluation and functional dance assessment, which will pick up on muscle imbalances or faulty movement patterns that may have contributed to their injury or place them at risk in the future.”

Proper technique is a crucial component of treating overuse injuries, she said – an issue the Back on Pointe staff can help address before allowing the athlete to safely return to high levels of training or competition.

“A recent participant of ours developed low back pain due to her flexibility range and the repetitive extension of her back muscles during intense ballet training,” she recalled. “We taught her core strengthening exercises to support her body in ways that helped her dance technique, turn-out and alignment.”

It’s estimated that eight out of 10 dancers suffer an injury each year. So, naturally, physical therapy is the core component of Back on Pointe with rehab services for injuries primarily to the foot, ankle, knee, hip and back – with “foot/ankle pain being the most common,” Sciola said.

“Treatments are individually designed taking into account the individual’s age, skill level and chosen sport,” Sciola said. “Our goal is to help performance athletes realize their dreams in performance quicker, stronger and better than before.”

You never know – they could be the next Olympian.

Female dancer doing dance leap

Former Back on Pointe participant and dancer, Chloe Abbott

Parkland’s Back on Pointe program includes physical therapy, injury screenings and injury prevention workshops held at local dance studios. This year, performance enhancement training was added to the program, which include individualized one-on-one physical training sessions designed to improve dance performance by improving flexibility, strength and muscle firing patterns during dance technique.

About HCA Healthcare

HCA Healthcare, one of the nation's leading providers of healthcare services, is comprised of 183 hospitals and more than 2,300 sites of care, in 20 states and the United Kingdom. Our more than 283,000 colleagues are connected by a single purpose — to give patients healthier tomorrows.

As an enterprise, we recognize the significant responsibility we have as a leading healthcare provider within each of the communities we serve, as well as the opportunity we have to improve the lives of the patients for whom we are entrusted to care. Through the compassion, knowledge and skill of our caregivers, and our ability to leverage our scale and innovative capabilities, HCA Healthcare is in a unique position to play a leading role in the transformation of care.

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