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  • Writer's pictureShara Ashley Zeiger

Dealing with Injury as a Performer

Many years ago when I was young the combination of a few things happened to my body that really changed the way I navigated the world. I’ve always been a very physical actor and I studied dance and I never really thought about an injury as something I’d have to live with for a long time.

When I was 21 the combination of a few things really changed me for life. I studied in London the fall semester of my junior year, and after that semester when I returned to the states on the way home from the airport, my mom and I got into an accident with a MAC Truck. My shoulders started acting funny, and clicking a lot, and I found myself in spats of intense pain. That spring when I was doing a lot of physical work in conservatory at The National Theater Institute I used to take the few breaks I had and see a chiropractor weekly who told me I had tendinitis in both shoulders, and something was up with the curve of my neck.

At the end of that semester I was warming up for a Droznin (Russian Movement) class, working on my handstands against a wall and my elbows buckled when I was upside down. This resulted in falling directly on my head on concrete. After a very intense four months of training at The O’Neill Theater Center and a brief stint at The St. Petersburg Theatre Arts Academy in Russia, hell or high water, I was not going to not perform in my final project. Some modifications were made to the blocking. I strapped on a neck brace, and took a lot of drugs and I did that show. Two weeks later I learned I had herniated two discs in my cervical spine.

I had an orthopedic surgeon and a neurosurgeon arguing over who was getting to cut me open, and I was afraid of a mess up making me unable to perform ever again. (My friend’s dad died from malpractice from the same surgery a few years prior.) I said no.

I didn’t let them “fix” me (which with back surgery usually just begets more back surgery), but it did change my relationship with my body. Over the years other injuries compounded on it. I’ve sprained my neck a ton being young and stupid and a few years ago learned I have two more herniated discs in my back. But Shara, How do you fix back pain? There are many tools that can help with pain in your neck and back pain. While I need to be careful and there are things I should not do, I have found various things over the years that I’ve found to be really helpful, keep me performing, keep me off drugs, and away from surgery.

Stretching is really important. I find stretching my hamstrings really helps take the pressure off my lower back. Sometimes I’ll use a doorway or yoga straps or even my husband to stand in for resistance. I always feel better if I’ve stretched.

Traction is your friend. If you go to a chiropractor they will pull your neck away. In a pandemic, not wanting to go to offices, I’ve found a yoga swing to be my best friend. My husband hung it from our ceiling and I hang upside down from it daily. Not only is it really fun to have a swing in your home, hanging upside down helps pull your vertebrae away from each other and keeps the pain from compression away.

Stay away from carrying heavy things. This one can be hard. I’m constantly emptying my purse (because I’m a NYer and I’m used to carrying a giant bag), and even trick myself and only carry a small purse sometimes so I can’t fill it. Be ok getting things on wheels. No one cares if you look like a dork. Ask for help. Just because you’re not old, or don’t look like you need help, just ask for it. My back always flares up when I carry too much.

Work out the knots. When you have back and shoulder issues you can develop knots. Those tension knots put pressure on your nerve endings and boom, pain. If you don’t have the funds to treat yourself to a massage, foam rollers and massage balls you can use yourself work really well. Sometimes I’ll even use a tennis ball and put it on a wall and lean in on it on the spots that need it.

Ice before heat. If I’m dealing with tension sometimes ice is a really good tool. A lot of people like heat, but you have to be careful, because heat draws blood to an area and if you’re not going to stretch right away or exercise, it can be bad because the blood then has nowhere to go and you wind up more inflamed.

Be mindful of things that have impact. Running and jumping is not your friend when you have a bad back, but bicycling and swimming are! COVID makes me miss the pool, but I have found it to be the best cardio over the years without the pressure on my spine.

If you have cervical issues in addition to your lower back like me, you also have to be really mindful of your posture. (My dance training and Alexander Technique training help with this one a lot!). So many people today should be mindful of this even if they don’t have an injury. Look at people’s shoulders. We have entire generations of people with weird back humps from looking down at their phone. Bring your phone up to meet your eyes. If you’re on the computer all day doing zoom calls with your laptop, add some books under your laptop to bring the screen up to meet you so you’re not slumping. It will prevent all sorts of stress and strain and headaches in the long run.

I may have had some not fun setbacks but navigating them has made me more in tune with my body. I’m forced to listen to it more. It might even have made me a better actor, because I’m more aware than I used to be. I’m lucky I’ve found tools that work, because not every injury has these luxuries and can’t find their way back to center. I may not look like I’ve got a lot going on with my spine, but I live with it just as so many live with their struggles. I am someone who will deal with back pain that will come and go for the rest of my life, all citing back to a few small moments when I was 21. I still get to dance and perform and do all of the things I love, just with some modifications and some attention. Who cares if my head isn’t on straight?

Awesome Tools That Help me Stretch

*A Partner to Stretch With (This is legit where I found mine!)

Awesome Tools That Help When I’m in Pain

Cool Places to Learn How to Feel Freer Moving

This is a picture of me still creating and

being a very physical actor despite having neck and spine problems.

Like my blog? Follow me @SharaAshleyZ for updates on new posts and musings!


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