In ballet, everyone wants perfect pointing feet. The big toe flexor is one of the keys that helps to point the foot perfectly and also one of the muscle groups that support the whole body weight en pointe in ballet.
As a dance physiotherapist, I always find out that the big toe flexors problem is one of the main reason for dancers suffering from back of ankle pain, decreased pointe range and drop of foot arch.
Also the big toe flexors tightness affect balance and sickle especially when demi pointe. As the foot weight bearing is not even due to the tight big toe flexor restricting the range of big toe extension.
FULL Big Toe extension with
1st MTP joint extension at least 90 degree
Full demi pointe with flexible big toe flexors
RESTRICTED Big Toe extension
1st MTP joint extension limited less than 90 degree
Sickling demi pointe with tight big toe flexors
Another issue is that the long division of the big toe flexiors i.e. Flexor Hallucis Longus (FHL) runs across the back of the ankle. When it inflamed, it caused back of the ankle pain, limited pointe range and a lot of the time it can be misdiagnosis as Achilles Tendinitis. I have experience seeing quite a few dancers and dance students experiencing back of ankle pain and being misdiagnosis as Achilles Tendinitis (misdiagnosis by someone who do not know anything about sports or dancers) and wasted their time with treatment not targeting at the right structure.
A lot of dancers has big toe flexor tightness without knowing it until it becomes painful with tendinitis. It can be so painful that stop dancer dancing and affect their career. Most of the people do not know what it is and how important it is to stretch and massage it.
However, a lot of people do strengthening it by using a stretchy resistance band. If it is not perform cautiously (sometime even performed cautiously), the exercise increased the tension and tightness of the big toe flexors. It sometimes does more harm than good to a dancer’s foot.
Also in this exercise, it is a pulling rather than push action. That is not simulating the dance movement when the foot is always pushing the floor. So this may affect the proprioception (joint sense and balance) of our leg.
See this video to get more information in action:
If you insist to do this exercise for strengthening, please stretch and massage especially the big toe flexors afterwards.
I met one English dancer who did the surgery for the long big toe flexor (FHL) tendinitis and recovered. She continued the resistance stretchy band strengthening exercise. After sometime she got the exact same pain and tendinitis again! She was so glade that when she met me in Hong Kong during performance and I told her about the possible problem of big toe flexors (actually also other toe flexors) tightness aroused by this exercise. She stopped this exercise after my advice and treatment. She was back to the UK and email to tell me that the pain was gone.
Of course, surgery is always the last resort. The thing is dancers need to know how to prevent this from happening.
One of the way is not to do the wrong strengthening and also to do the right massage, keep relieving the tension of these muscles especially after dancing.
In the next article, we will talk about the anatomy of Big Toe Flexors and how to stretch and massage it. Also how to do correct strengthening exercise for foot pointing and pointe work.
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