Your Body: Oldies But Goodies

November 23, 2009

Susanna Bozzetti has been navigating the fast-paced athletic feats of Jennifer Muller’s choreography for the past five years. After recent back-to-back shows at New York’s Joyce Theater, she headed straight for a soothing Epsom salt bath, where she was two cups and 20 minutes away from feeling better. “It brings my muscles back to neutral,” says Bozzetti. “The next day they loosened and I noticed more freedom in my dancing.”


Bozzetti first heard about traditional remedies, many of which date back centuries, from her Juilliard classmates. Rehab methods may have moved forward, but these tried-and-true cures still can help, especially during the high stress of performance season. Just because your teacher used them doesn’t mean there isn’t any science involved.

It’s no wonder Bozzetti felt rejuve­nated after a bath. The active ingredient in Epsom salts is magnesium sulfate, a mineral depleted by exercise. Nancy Cotter, MD, a former dancer and medical director of integrative medicine at Atlantic Health in Morristown, New Jersey, regularly uses traditional remedies in her practice. “Magnesium is one of the most important minerals in the body. It plays a role in hundreds of the body’s enzymatic reactions,” says Cotter. “Most of us suffer from low magnesium, especially dancers. A bath is an ideal way for the body to absorb this mineral through the skin.” Cotter also recommends taking an Epsom salt bath the night before a strenuous day. “You can head off aches by boosting your magnesium before you need it,” she says. Magnesium can also be taken orally and is found in foods such as leafy greens, beans, peas, nuts, seeds and whole grains. Still, the healing powers of hot baths of salts are well documented and date back to ancient Rome.

Arnica is another old-school must-have for dancers. A centuries-old remedy, Arnica derives from the sunflower family, and comes now in a more modern formulation, Traumeel. Studies show that Traumeel reduces swelling and bruising, which speeds healing. After a tough landing during a photo shoot, Traumeel rescued Bozzetti’s sprained angle. “I also went to the doctor, applied ice, and took ibuprofen,” remembers Bozzetti. “I was amazed at how well the combination managed the swelling and bruising.” While no one should skip classic first-aid practices like RICE (rest, ice, compression, elevation), Traumeel seems a helpful addition. “I use it all the time in my practice in combination with ice and anti-inflammatory medication. But truthfully, we still don’t know how it works,” admits Cotter.

Bozzetti’s natural arsenal also includes Tiger Balm, an age-old topical salve containing camphor, menthol, cajuput oil, mint, and clove—essential oils that are used for sore muscles. By dilating the peripheral blood vessels, the oils help blood move closer to the skin’s surface, increasing circulation and warmth. The balm, which comes in oinment or patch form, also raises the skin’s temperature, creating a local analgesic effect, which reduces the sensation of pain. “We believe it penetrates the skin and soothes muscles,” says Cotter. Bozzetti likes to use it before class if she’s tight. “Or I slap on the Tiger Balm patches at night and wake up feeling ready to move,” she says.

A Broadway dancer in Burn the Floor, Henry Vyalikov has been turning to Epsom salts and Tiger Balm since he joined the show. “As the week progresses, I become more exhausted and in need of relaxation, so Fridays are big ‘salt’ days.” The Australian-born dancer also finds Tiger Balm a dance bag must-have, especially for his grueling schedule of 20 numbers for eight shows a week. “It’s great for tight muscles and cramping,” he says.

Natural remedies have the virtue of being hard to overuse. “You can’t overdose taking a bath,” says Cotter. “But it’s not recommended if you have open wounds, because it will delay healing and hurt like the dickens.” She also suggests avoiding Traumeel and Arnica if you have any sensitivity to their ingredients, though the instances are rare. “Tiger Balm,” she cautions, “contains some potent essential oils that need to be kept away from your eyes, mouth, nose and open wounds. Wash your hands thoroughly after use.”

As valuable as a good soak and some pungent salve can be, Cotter warns dancers to pay attention if they are not feeling better after several days of any type of remedy. “If you still ache all over, rather than in just the place you’ve been overworking, it’s time to call your doctor,” she says. “There could be something more global going on—nutritional or metabolic—that we need to consider.”

For Bozzetti, traditional remedies are a means of maintenance, not the answer to every ache. Staying healthy includes sound nutrition, cross-training, and adequate rest. That said, ask her what’s in her dance bag and she will likely say, “Tiger Balm. I never leave the house without it.”

Nancy Wozny writes about health and the arts from Houston.