Saturday, September 7, 2013

The stigma of injury

I first dislocated my shoulder in 2004. The same year I started pole dancing, and as you can imagine, that's not a coincidence. It's also not the only time I dislocated it that year. It's one of those injuries that a) some people are naturally predisposed to, and b) recurs. And pole and aerial are just as dangerous for your shoulders as playing tackle football.

But these things happen, right? And while there was some carelessness on my part--I shouldn't have been doing 1-handed spins (I still don't teach them, even Reverse Grab), and certainly not throwing them as hard as I did. All athletes get injured from time to time, and pole and aerial are extreme sports. Playing baseball you can tear a rotator cuff; flipping 20 feet up in the air you can die.

I've always been very open about my injuries, partially because they can recur, and partially because I can help other people. I've talked SO many people through shoulder injuries, from subluxation to surgery (which I had in 2007). But on the flipside of that, I've felt a certain stigma that comes with having had aerial injuries.

I first noticed it at one of my first auditions to teach. I slayed at my audition for a fitness center, but didn't get hired. When I asked for feedback, the first thing out of the hiring manager's mouth was that he was concerned that I had been injured. I was taken aback. Almost every full-time athlete at my circus school had gone through some sort of injury. That's unfortunately something that happens when you push the limits of what the human body can do. Ask any Olympian.

Obviously, my teaching career went on just fine without the paranoid gym, but every once in awhile I'm reminded of the stigma of having been injured and "out" about it. It's ridiculous, but it's hardly a unique phenomenon. It reminds me of my former career as a singer. The worst thing that can happen to you as a singer is that you get nodes. If you get nodes, besides possibly never being able to sing professionally again, or needing surgery and vocal therapy, there is also the assumption, maybe by yourself, maybe by your colleagues and the fans, that you have Bad Technique. Everything you thought you knew is wrong. You are a Lifetime movie, a statistic, an example of what not to do. That might not be the case, but that's what everyone thinks.

If you've ever been seriously injured in the aerial arts--or, for teachers and studio owners, if you've ever had a student who was hurt on your watch--you've probably felt this stigma. So for everyone's sake, I want to set a few things straight.

Injuries are not necessarily caused by carelessness or *bad technique*
When you are pushing your body to the limits, anything can happen. You can be benching 300 lbs and your wrist can give out without warning. You can get distracted and lose your footing. You can throw a drop the same number of times you did yesterday, but today it's one time too many.

You can't predict everything that will go wrong.
Part of our job as teachers is to predict everything that could go wrong in a move. But you can't. People will always find new ways of hurting themselves. I once had a student cut her finger poling. I was like HOW DID YOU DO THAT, THERE ARE NO EDGES. And I've been told the way I fell out of a move was "not possible." I guess I just defied reality then. (Side note: I did break my leg in high school in a way that the doctor told me was impossible, and he insisted as much until I gave up and admitted I must have broken it some other way. In retrospect, my parents should have walked me out of that office. I don't think "empowered patients" were a thing in the 90's.)

Accidents are not always as cause-effect friendly as we want them to be.
I dislocated my shoulder 6 times over 3 years, and NONE of them was while I was doing something that you would expect to dislocate a shoulder. But there was often something I did not long before the incident that would have compromised the joint, such as spinning on one arm or stretching my shoulders too much in class the day before. I also have thrown my back out doing the stupidest shit--during periods when I was deadlifting heavy. (I mean weight deadlifting, not pole deadlifting.)

People can be predisposed to physical issues.
The funny thing is, my deadlift technique is polished. But I've also had back problems since I was 21. (True story: they mostly went away when I started poling.) And, as you've no doubt surmised by now, I naturally have loose shoulder joints that are predisposed to dislocation. (I've even subluxed my left shoulder a couple times, and that's after being crazy careful because of what happened with the right.) Just as you can have a propensity towards breast cancer or diabetes, you can have a propensity towards bad knees.

Sometimes we do have bad technique.
Let's not be overly-defensive here--some people do get injured because of one or more issues of poor technique or training methods.  These can include:
  • Not warming up sufficiently
  • Overtraining (see Are you overtraining?)
  • Stretching cold
  • "Flailing," i.e. throwing movements without control (as opposed to effectively utilizing momentum; see In defense of momentum)
  • Misinformation, such as being taught to throw your head back as you invert
  • Weakness/under-engagement from one muscle group and the compensatory actions of others
But, before you go judging somebody's bad technique, remember: We all have bad technique *sometimes.* We cheat on warmups like we cheat on diets. We get carried away and worried about upcoming performances and we overtrain. We jump into moves before we learn to glide into them. If you've never been hurt, good for you. If you've never done something reckless that could have gotten you hurt, I don't believe you.
Image from


  1. Interesting. I've never really thought about being pre-disposed to injury, but what you're saying makes sense. I guess it's important to help others avoid it... although I'm also a big proponent of taking your cross training seriously in order to prevent injury, because the stronger you are the easier it is to protect yourself from injury. That still doesn't replace good technique, and I'm not sure if it would overcome predisposition to injury. Interesting post.

  2. You bring up a good point--predisposition is different from an unavoidable fate. The more aware you are of your body's tendencies, the better you can avoid it. Unfortunately, we're usually not aware that we're likely to have a certain kind of injury until we have it (or have it several times).

  3. Accidents are called accidents because you cannot anticipate them. We could try as hard as we could to do things properly, especially for people with active lifestyles, but we could only do enough. People get injured in the most peculiar ways. And when you do get into accidents and injure yourself, make sure to totally heal before resuming your activities. By the way, thank you for the insights!
    Sienna @ Fort Lauderdale Orthopaedics & Sports Medicine

  4. "Misinformation, such as being taught to throw your head back as you invert"

    I was taught to do this, and have always felt guilty because I choose NOT to do it. I'm curious now about other pieces of misinformation.

  5. I once had a student cut her finger poling. I was like HOW DID YOU DO THAT, THERE ARE NO EDGES.

    Yep, I've cut myself on the pole and had the exact same reaction too. Pole magic, I guess. But it's true, sometimes it's just body awkwardness or random happenstance that will trip you up. That said, the only *real* pole injury I've had was when my spotter got distracted as I attempted butterfly, my hand slipped, and I landed on my face. :(

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