"People wouldn't see ballerinas as athletes, but we are the highest caliber of athleticism," Toussaint said. "It is so competitive in nature because there are hundreds of women who want the job."
Three years into her career as a young ballet dancer, Toussaint tore her right hamstring while stretching.
"I was raising myself up after bending into a stretch when I heard a pop," Toussaint said. "It felt like a guitar string got plucked."
Toussaint said her trainers told her the pain would go away after eight weeks. She kept dancing through her injury until her right leg turned purple.
"Ballet dancers are taught to smile no matter how grueling the pain is," Toussaint said. "I couldn't imagine a small injury I had could result in something so catastrophic."
Jonathon Mackoff, a chiropractor who works with Chicago-based ballet companies, said it is common for dancers to push through the pain.
"Ballerinas don't dream of dancing in the chorus. They have the vision to be a feature performer," Mackoff said. "Often times they push through the pain because they want to perform."
Toussaint developed Reflex Sympathy Dystrophy, otherwise known as "suicide disease." RSD begins as pain limited to the region of the injury often leaving someone unable to move that part of his or her body. The pain spreads over time to all parts of the body. Doctors are generally able to treat RSD within a year of diagnosis. However, Toussaint was not diagnosed with RSD until she had spent 15 years in a wheelchair after her injury.
"My brain just kept saying, 'pain, pain, pain,' and the pain spread everywhere," Toussaint said. "I [still] feel like I've been doused in gasoline and set on fire."
"Every injury is unique to the dancer," Mackoff said. "You never know what injury is going to trigger the end for that dancer's career."
Mackoff said the pain dancers experience in a certain area of their body may not always be where the injury occurred. According to Mackoff, dancers overcompensate by putting more pressure on the area of their body that is not injured, thus causing more pain in the region not directly affected by the injury. However, Mackoff recommends early treatment for any injury.
"At some point, pain is inevitable for a ballerina," Mackoff said. "It helps to use a whole body approach when assessing and managing their pain, rather than a site of injury approach."
Toussaint now speaks regularly to ballet students at University of California Irvine about understanding the difference between pains that accompany minor ballet injuries and realizing when the pain is the injury.
"I told them I wish I could have heard me speak 26 years ago," Toussaint said. "If I saw a former ballerina in a wheelchair speaking to me about preventing pain, I don't think I would be where I am now."
Joseph Brownstein contributed to this report.