The Pain in Sprain is Not Just in the Brain

sprain diagram

Diagram of a lateral ankle sprain from

So it happened. I was in class, standing near the back corner, practicing an attitude pirouette en dedans to the left (counter-clockwise turn with right leg bent behind, for non-balletic readers) when something went wrong. I can’t recall whether there was too much momentum, or my foot was turning faster than my torso, or my torso was spinning faster than my foot could keep up with in a turned out position. Either way, I stumbled. My left ankle twisted and I landed on the outside of a little sickled foot.

Sharp pain, shock, then numbness. It lasted all of two seconds. I was still upright. I don’t think anyone even noticed, as we were all marking the final combination without music. Or they probably thought it was a harmless misstep. The teacher’s reminders blurred into a murmur as I tested the ankle. Yes, I could put some weight on it. Yes, the lateral side was sore. No, I could not do a full rise so I shouldn’t even attempt a turn.

By then, the music had started and it was too late to excuse myself or ask to sit this one out. So I ended up performing the waltz turn combination in a group, focusing on expression in my arms, substituting an attitude balance on flat for an attitude turn. At the end, I even got praised for my musicality. I tried to smile without grimacing. And pretended to stretch on the floor after class, putting my cold, stainless steel water bottle against the now-swollen ankle while waiting for most people to leave first. I should have said something. I don’t know why I didn’t — too ashamed, not wanting to draw attention, not wanting to ruin the rhythm of what, until then, had been an enjoyable class full of brain-teasing patterns and dance-y combinations.

I hobbled down to the subway, made my way home and collapsed onto the couch after strapping an ice pack around the ankle. Here we go again.

The first time I sprained this ankle was 11 years ago. I was running with a boy across an overpass in Manila. He was a goateed writer, I was a wannabe. It was late at night after a poetry reading and we were high on words and beer and traffic exhaust and what I thought was love. We held hands and ran giddily across the overpass that smelled of pee when, splat, my left ankle gave way, but my body was still hurtling forward so it took several seconds and even more painful steps before my brain hit the brakes and said STOP.

There were a handful of other minor twists over the years — nothing that caused too much pain or that didn’t take a couple of days to heal. The most recent incident happened last year, in the office. It was the day V and I were flying out to visit his family and enjoy a two-week vacation. I was giggling with excitement — it was going to be my first time in Europe. The luggage had been packed, the itinerary planned, and I just had to proofread a few more pages before heading straight to the airport after work for our night flight. I was walking down an empty corridor — an empty corridor! catnip for dancers! — and was so happy my body decided to do a tombé-pas-de-bourré-glissade-grand-jeté. Stupid move. I had been sitting at a computer all day, muscles nowhere close to warm. I landed the leap on my right leg fine, then stepped forward with the left foot, which promptly rolled inward. A surge of pain. Hours later, I was on the plane with my foot up beside a plastic cup full of ice. The ankle was swollen, a network of faint blue bruises below it. Nothing a couple of days resting in the farmhouse at Villefranche-Saint-Phal couldn’t cure, I hoped. I swore I’d have it looked at when we returned home. I never got around to it.

I’ve ignored the signals this ankle has been sending me for years. Now it’s disgruntled, demanding attention. I’ve been babying it with RICE (Rest, Ice, Compression and Elevation), and there’s no more swelling, just an echo of pain when I point my foot. But I’m taking a break from dance classes for at least a week to be sure. I’ve looked up all the possible things that could go wrong — permanently loose ligaments, badly healing scar tissue prone to tearing. Decreased proprioception (not knowing where the joint is in space) sounds like one of the worst, and seems ridiculously existential.

So, yes, I’ve made an appointment to have the ankle looked at this week. Hopefully it’s not too late to make sense of what seems to be a chronic problem.

Have you ever had a dance or sport-related injury? What did you do, and how long before you returned to practice?


13 thoughts on “The Pain in Sprain is Not Just in the Brain

  1. Be careful with sprained ankles. It is the only kind injury I ever had, but now, as I am growing older, loose ligaments are an issue. Make sure your ankle gets enough rest. Get well soon.

    • Thanks, Paulina. Yeah, some things catch up with us as we age, no? How do the loose ligaments affect you — do they make everyday movements, or just dancing, difficult?

      • My ankles are weaker. When I am dancing, I need to watch my technique more. Apart from that I do not have big problems. So, I work on my technique and try to strenghten relevant muscles.

  2. Oh, I’m sorry to hear about your sprained ankle. The only time I’ve ever sprained my ankle was in a car accident a few years back, and yes there was no way I could’ve danced on it, though it happened before I started doing ballet. Other than hobbling around the house I didn’t do any moving around for a few weeks. Good thing you’re getting it checked out for your peace of mind.

    • Hobbling’s the one thing I’m good at right now! That should be a new dance — The Hobbler’s Port de Bras. Thanks, sweetie — we’ll see what they make of my ankle soon enough.

  3. That sounds so painful. Glad you’re going to go get it checked out. I have recently learned that ignoring pain hurts you more in the long run. Rest and healing for both of us. We’ll be back at the barre soon!

  4. Aahwww man you should not ignore an injury like that! I know how you feel in just going on but you could have made matters worse! Good luck on healing, I hope it will be fine..!
    I once sprained my hamstring, noooooot nice….. Trying to do the splits when I was too cold (apparently). That was a longtime ago and the weird thing is, that leg is now more flexible than the other.. so maybe I need to do it to the other leg, hahaha!! 😉

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