Why is there an Injury Epidemic in Pole Dancing, and how do we fix it?

As many of you know, I had major surgery this year. And not long after, so did several of my absolute favorite pole dancers: Anna-Maija Nyman. Amy Hazel. [Edit: this article previously mentioned Carlie Hunter, who did have surgery this year, but unrelated to pole.] It's human nature that when something happens to us, we are much more likely to notice it all around us. (It's called the Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon for my fellow nerds.) But then... I have been a fanatical follower of pole news for many years, and there is literally no other year that all my pole heroes had surgery at the same time.

  • Fact: competitive pole dancing is a very new sport. 
  • Also Fact: this sport has accelerated very quickly in terms of difficulty and competitive culture.
  • Also Also Fact: There are only a few bodies that have been doing this sport for as long as 5-10 years, and some of us are shown below.

A photo posted by Tara Steed (@tututara) on

I'm going to put out there the (possibly very unpopular) idea that an Injury Epidemic is happening among pole dancers. It's most visible among high level competitors and teachers. Sure, high-level athletes get injured in every sport. It's a risk we take pushing the boundaries of the body. But the thing is, this is not just happening at the highest level. It's happening all over the country, all over the world, at all levels of practice. I'm seeing it on Facebook and Instagram posts, and I'm seeing it when I visit studios to teach. But I absolutely believe there is another way - and I think it can start with this simple cultural change: believing that not being injured is sexy, and that listening to our bodies is sexy. 


WHY ARE SO MANY INJURIES HAPPENING?

1. Forces On The Joints

Here's a thing about our joints: they weren't designed to have a metal bar stuck inside them, and then to have a great amount of weight/force placed on them while wrapped around said metal bar. Scroll down for a second and take a look at the diagram below. This is about to get super nerdy and science-y, but stick with me. It's really important. 

In a nutcracker, there are 2 metal levers. See them? When squeezed together, they create a "mechanical advantage" which sends extra force to the fulcrum point, or hinge, where they connect. This cracks the nut. In the human body, our bones are levers and our joints are the fulcrum points. In a leg hang, the leg bones squeeze together around the pole, sending extra force to the fulcrum point, or knee joint. A knee hang doesn't crack a nut, but it very likely does put tiny cracks in the tissues of the joint.

Lucky for us, unlike nuts, our bodies are self-healing. Any cracks are continuously repaired. But some tissues get less blood flow and heal more slowly -- especially cartilage, ligaments, and tendons found at joints.

This type of force on the joints is a problem very specific to pole dancers. All aerialists suffer from shoulder issues (more on that next). But silks, lyra, trapeze, etc., are smaller and softer, and therefore less damaging in this way to the joints.

"INCREASING THE FORCE" Nutcracker example from Warren O'Conner. Pole photo of Liz Kinnmark, taken by Ray Tamarra.

"INCREASING THE FORCE" Nutcracker example from Warren O'Conner. Pole photo of Liz Kinnmark, taken by Ray Tamarra.

2. The Shoulder Is Not The Most Stable Joint

Here's another thing about humans: we walk on our largest limbs, the legs. Most of the load-bearing of the weight of the body is done by our legs and hips. The hips are a ball-and-socket joint with a very deep, stable socket. Our smaller arms generally do smaller tasks, like reaching around to get things. This takes more flexibility than strength. So the shoulders are a ball-and-socket joint with a shallow, unstable socket, that moves in all directions very easily.

Aerialists mix everything up. When we fly around on poles, or hoops, or silks, much of the load-bearing of the body is done on our smaller, less stable arms and shoulders. It's not what we're designed for. The body can do it, but to avoid injury, it requires some "redesigning" -- very careful and deliberate training to make your shoulder-stabilizing muscles extra strong and used to firing up. And also very deliberately stretching and releasing those now-extra-strong stabilizers, so they don't stay firing and locked up all the time, to the point that they burn out.

It's hard work to redesign the way your shoulders work, and it's not exciting. These exercises are low-weight and high-repetition. Repetitive and yes, boring. It's way more fun to just fly around in the air. So more flying gets done, and less essential "prehab" and cross-training, and over enough time eventually shoulder injuries set in.

3. Competitive Culture

Alright, so even with the wear and tear that pole causes joints, specifically the shoulders, it is STILL POSSIBLE TO POLE AND NOT GET HURT. Our bodies are self-healing. How badass is that?! We can do dumb things like hurt ourselves and totally heal it right back up and be fine again. This is AMAZING. If only this happened when you accidentally dropped your phone on a cement floor, or accidentally ran your car into a post.

Super cool fact #2: the body has a feedback system to tell us when we've done something dumb, and we need to stop and heal. It's called Pain.

Pain is actually a gift. It's a communication from the body. It updates us on the status of what's going on inside. Now if we ignore that communication and don't stop and rest... The body can't do the healing we need, and it doesn't go well. We don't get re-set to a healthy place. Why ignore pain? Usually, because something else seems more important. A big reason is if your livelihood depends on doing the thing that hurts. And there's always the FOMO - not wanting to fall behind the pack. And unfortunately, there's still that old fitness mantra going strong in many people's heads: "No pain, no gain."

These are actually cultural problems, more than design-of-the-body problems. The body is very willing to adapt and be modified, but it can only do so at a certain pace. Culturally we need to get our shit together. If listening to the body was a core value, ahead of say, posting to Instagram or winning competitions, then *Poof* - bye bye Injury Epidemic. 


HOW CAN WE FIX IT?

1. Getting Surgery When Injuries Are Dire

Surgery is the last option. I'm incredibly thankful for how surgery has given me my life back - the ability to live without pain, the ability to use my hands and arms, and even the ability to do incredible feats of strength and flexibility on the pole once again. Let me be very clear: this is not a path I would recommend or wish on anyone.

2. Education

Perhaps the silver lining to our Injury Epidemic is that those of use that have had to go to the place of surgery can now become agents of change. Teachers need to teach how to be safe for the long-term: how to move safely, and how to listen to your body and stop when appropriate. We need to make Not Being Injured sexy. And we need to lead by example.

All of us, pole dance instructors and pole dance students, need to make education a top priority. The more we learn about the biomechanics of what we're doing with our bodies, the more we can continue to do the things we love safely. The more we learn about mindset and internal awareness, the more we will listen to and monitor our bodies. And by passing on all that knowledge, we can create a new generation of polers WITHOUT an injury epidemic. 

Those healthy polers will be able to continue poling, continue performing, and continue coming to class, which means a healthier industry, more money to go around, and less pressure on teachers to overwork and do things that break themselves.

So what do you say, everyone? Are you ready to commit to education and revolutionizing the culture? Or are we going to continue letting our bodies break down and our community break down?

Since surgery, I have certainly changed the way I train my own body and the way I teach others. I recently taught a new workshop called "Save Your Shoulders," focusing on exercises for rehab and injury prevention. As I wrote the next day:

"Seeing all of you come out and discuss your struggles, fears, and desires to be stronger athletes and better teachers, gave me ALL THE LIFE. It also made it very clear that I'm not the only one who feels this topic is under-addressed. While my personal saga of trying to manage shoulder problems has felt like a total nightmare, there is no greater vindication than being able to put that experience to use and save YOUR shoulders."

(Shameless plug: I will be touring in 2017, teaching "Save Your Shoulders" and other restorative workshops. No "minimum student" requirements. Contact me to book workshops at your studio.)