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RespiratoryMay 10, 2024

After shining in Riverdance, Roisin Cahalan has developed a fascinating career in physiotherapy

In an exclusive PhysioUpdate Q&A, physiotherapist Róisín Cahalan tells Ian A McMillan about her career highlights. Róisín embarked on a physiotherapy career after shining in the smash hit Irish dance show Riverdance and working in software engineering. Now at the University of Limerick, her remit includes teaching, research and service responsibilities. She will speak at next month's British Thoracic Society's summer meeting and, from September, will lead a new online programme to support health for performance in Irish dancers.

What attracted you to physiotherapy as a profession? 

I first considered physiotherapy as a career option in my late twenties. I was working as a professional Irish dancer in Riverdance at the time and was coming to the end of my career and considering my next move. Prior to working on the show, I had been a software engineer – which I knew wasn’t for me anymore – so I made a list of all the attributes I wanted in a job, and physio fitted the bill. I was influenced by some amazing physios who worked with us in Riverdance (the first Irish dance show), including Grant Plumbley, Louise Morrissey and Ruth Magee, who were all pivotal people in helping me to decide about my next steps.

Roisin's is looking forward to running a programme for Irish dancers from September

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When and where did you graduate and how has your career evolved?  

 I graduated from the University of Limerick (UL), here in Ireland, in 2008 and started work in private practice straight away. I then moved to the hospital sector where I stayed until 2013, at which stage I went back to UL to work as a placement coordinator for the physio students. All along, I had my own practice, primarily treating dancers and athletes. In about 2018, I moved into teaching in the respiratory and cardiovascular space, where I still work in UL. That’s all about to change though as I have developed a new online programme to support health for performance in Irish dancers, and I will be leading that from September. So, I’m coming full circle on my physio journey.

What is your job and its remit?

As an academic, my job is split between teaching, research and service roles. As I mentioned, my teaching is primarily in the cardiovascular and respiratory space, and a lot of my research is there too. However, I’m also involved in research with elite dancers and athletes, which I really enjoy, and is a complete contrast to my teaching remit. I also supervise several PhD and other post grad students and am involved in the Physical Activity for Health research centre, here in UL. I also recently took on a role as chair of the faculty ethics committee, something I really enjoy and has been a bit of an eye opener about the range of research going on in the faculty. There are always opportunities to get involved in so much in a university, and that’s one of the main reasons I enjoy working here so much.

We see you are to speak at the British Thoracic Society’s (BTS) summer meeting in June. Is it important for physiotherapists to have a profile at multidisciplinary events like these?

I think it’s hugely gratifying and important that allied health professional (AHP) voices have a platform at important events like these. Interprofessional working is key to best outcomes for patients, and we all have important roles in that regard. I attended the BTS Winter meeting several years ago in London and was struck by the limited number of sessions by AHPs, so it’s great to see it happening more and more. I’m really thrilled and honoured to present at such a prestigious and important event.

Your topic of ‘group singing on social prescription’ sounds fascinating. Tell us more!

This was something that percolating at the back of my mind for years. It made sense to me that in chronic respiratory disease, the way people breathe changes as they get more reliant on accessory muscles, to the detriment of the big drivers of breathing like the diaphragm and the intercostal muscles. I also knew that trained singers prefer to use their diaphragm to sing and thought about using singing training to help rehab patients with abnormal breathing. In doing so, the logic goes that if people breathe more effectively, oxygenation, and ultimately perfusion, improves, leading to less breathlessness and the potential to build up greater physical endurance.

The other thing I understood was that there is a genuine feel-good factor to singing, and people feel better after group singing, in particular. But I really underestimated just how powerful and beneficial singing can be for people with a chronic disease. And so, SingStrong was born, and we have worked with lots of different groups ever since including people with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), interstitial lung disease (ILD), long Covid, and more recently, the SingStrong for Cancer study.


Tell us about your current research and future plans

I have a couple of things on the boil at the moment. My SingStrong for Cancer is up and running, and we are just recruiting for a project called BUILD 2K funded by the Irish Research Council – it’s 'buddy walking' in ILD. I’m hoping to start work on a new COPD knowledge in the community study soon (funding pending and fingers crossed).

Outside of the respiratory space, I’m leading a really exciting international project on the psychosocial drivers of injury in performing artists (PRIPA) and am also part of an ongoing body of work called IRIS exploring injury surveillance and many other aspects of the amateur rugby union game. That’s funded by the Irish Rugby Football Union. I’m supervising a number of post-grad student projects in areas as diverse as female athletes, chronic pain and sleep, and online exercise and education for people with chronic disease. So, a very interesting, mixed bag.

How do you relax away from work?

My great passion in life is Munster Rugby – I’ve been a diehard fan for over 20 years now, through good and bad times, and few things bring me more pleasure than a night at Thomond Park, our Limerick ground. I’ve also recently taken up the sax, which I play in a band along with daughter Faith who is learning the trumpet – we have a very noisy house. I work out a lot, but more by necessity rather than relaxation, and like to travel when I can. I have a long list of places in the world that I would love to see.

Dr Róisín Cahalan is an associate professor of physiotherapy at the University of Limerick

Email: roisin.cahalan@ul.ie X (formerly Twitter): @roisinc1

Author: Róisín Cahalan
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