Health

Physical therapist uses background to help dancers heal from injuries

Physical therapist Rebecca Strabala (left) stabilizes the knee of Jordan Sanders, a sophomore St. Ambrose University dance team member, during her physical therapy session at Mercy Health Plaza, 5264 Council St. NE, in northeast Cedar Rapids, Iowa, on Friday, April 12, 2019. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
Physical therapist Rebecca Strabala (left) stabilizes the knee of Jordan Sanders, a sophomore St. Ambrose University dance team member, during her physical therapy session at Mercy Health Plaza, 5264 Council St. NE, in northeast Cedar Rapids, Iowa, on Friday, April 12, 2019. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
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CEDAR RAPIDS — Rebecca Strabala spent years of her life honing her dance ability — and now she’s bringing that experience to Mercy’s rehabilitation team.

Strabala has spearheaded an effort to introduce dance-specific physical therapy in Cedar Rapids since she joined Mercy Medical Center staff in February 2017, a service she wished she had when recovering from a dance injury herself.

“I was injured when I was in college and I went to a physical therapist for that,” she said. “It was a very frustrating experience actually, because I went in and she didn’t know what I needed to be able to do for dance.”

Now a physical therapist herself, Strabala said she began offering dance-centric therapy to provide dancers with an experience that could be tailored to them.

“Since I have the degree in dance, I feel like I have a good understanding of what they need,” Strabala said.

An avid dancer since the age of 10, Strabala went on to earn dual degrees in dance and health and human physiology, as well as a doctor of physical therapy degree from the University of Iowa.

Earlier this month, she worked with Jordan Sanders, a sophomore at St. Ambrose College in Davenport who competes with the college’s dance team. She was off this season due to an injury to her medial patellofemoral ligament, which keeps the kneecap attached to the inner part of the knee.

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In late February, Sanders underwent a surgery to remove damaged cartilage from her knee, and has be going to physical therapy with Strabala since.

“I’ve really liked it,” Sanders said of the physical therapy appointments. “It’s gotten me back to where I’m supposed to be.”

The biggest difference between dancers and other sports-related injuries is that dancers tend to need a wider range of motion, which help them accomplish feats such as getting their leg 90 degrees behind their body, Strabala said.

But when dancers say the need to do an arabesque, most physical therapists aren’t aware of what that means, Strabala said.

“I really have that background to know when they come in and say a specific movement that they’re having challenges with, I really feel like I have a deeper understanding of the kinesiology behind that and what they need to be able to do to address that,” she said.

Not only does Strabala work to get her patients back to an effortless pirouette, but she tries to help dancers analyze their techniques to find what may have caused the injury.

For Sanders, she discovered through physical therapy that she was favoring one leg over the other, which ultimately led to the tear in her right knee.

“That’s what caused the injury in the first place,” Sanders said. “So (Strabala) has been able to help me have an equal balance in both legs, strength wise.”

This type of physical therapy can also be beneficial to other types of injuries.

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Also in Cedar Rapids, UnityPoint Health-St. Luke’s Hospital’s Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation gym has been using a harness and track system called the Solo Step to help patients recover from a stroke and spinal cord injury, among others. In one case, that harness was used to incorporate ballroom dancing into a patient’s physical therapy appointments.

Strabala hopes to expand her skill set outside of the clinic and provide more education to dance studios in the area.

“I’ve been able to go to studios and talk to dancers about injury prevention strategies and technique and things like that to try and help reduce the rate of injuries,” she said.

l Comments: (319) 368-8536; michaela.ramm@thegazette.com

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