There are certain things to know about hamstring injuries. If you want to learn more, click here to find out about some of the causes and treatment options.
Your hamstrings are one of those essential muscle groups that you tend to take for granted, being necessary for, you know, standing upright. Most of us don’t spare our hamstrings much thought beyond how tight they are and how you should probably stretch them.
But if you’re an athlete, your hamstrings are critical to your performance ability. If they get injured, failure to treat them properly could leave you out of the game for months on end.
If you’re dealing with hamstring injuries (or looking to avoid hamstring injuries in the future) here’s what you need to know to protect your legs and promote healing.
What are the Hamstrings?
To understand what happens during a hamstring injury (and how to fix it) you first have to understand how the hamstrings work and what goes wrong.
Your hamstrings aren’t a single muscle, but rather a group of three muscles running along the back of your thigh. Their opposing muscle group is the quadriceps, and these two muscle groups work together.
The hamstrings are usually posited as helping you bend and straighten your legs, but it’s a bit more complicated. What the hamstrings and quadriceps really do is work together to keep your pelvis stable.
Your Quads, Your Hamstrings, and Your Pelvis in Action
Picture a telephone pole with guy wires. Your pelvis is the pole and your hamstrings and quads are the guy wires. The difference is that your pelvis, unlike a telephone pole, has movement, and most people have stronger quadriceps than hamstrings.
This strength imbalance isn’t anything to worry about per se–it’s naturally occurring. As long as your strength ratio stays where it’s supposed to be, your muscles can work together as intended.
But if the strength ratio is pulled out of balance and your quads are significantly stronger than your hamstrings, they begin to pull the pelvis into a slight anterior rotation (forward tilt). This elevates the hamstring attachment site, overextending your hamstrings and forcing them to hold on for dear life.
That’s when injuries come into play.
Signs and Symptoms of Hamstring Injuries
When you get a hamstring injury, one or more of the three muscles in the hamstring group gets overloaded.
A hamstring injury always involves pain in the back of the legs. If the muscle is overloaded too much, it may even begin to tear. If you have what’s known as a “pulled hamstring” you may hear or feel a pop.
You’ll feel pain immediately, though the amount is variable. Athletes can’t continue after the tear–sometimes they can’t even stand.
Closer examination of the injured hamstring will reveal tightness and tenderness, in some cases even muscle spasming. In severe injuries, you’ll notice swelling and a black-and-blue bruised appearance at the injury site.
Risk Factors for Hamstring Injuries
Unfortunately, hamstring injuries are wildly common among athletes, including:
- Soccer players
- Football players
- Basketball players
- Tennis players
Basically any sport that demands sudden stops and starts can place excess stress on your hamstrings, though they’re also common among runners (who often have extremely tight hamstrings) or dancers and yogis (who routinely perform extreme stretching).
On the flip side, if you have poor flexibility, your hamstrings will have to work much harder with a limited range of motion, so they may not be able to bear the full force of certain activities and become injured.
In addition, as previously noted, overdeveloped quadriceps without equal attention to your hamstrings can pull your pelvis out of balance.
Finally, if you have a prior history of hamstring injuries, there’s a higher probability you’ll experience hamstring injuries again.
Treatment for Hamstring Injuries
Healing a hamstring strain starts with one simple step: stop working your hamstrings.
This isn’t pleasant, and it’s not always possible to fully avoid using your hamstrings since you need them to walk, but you should refrain from your typical physical activity until your hamstring heals.
A minor hamstring injury can be treated with rest and some over-the-counter medications to keep pain in check. Oral non-steroid anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) like ibuprofen, Motrin, or Aleve are usually effective for short-term pain relief.
If your hamstring pain isn’t going away after a few days, call your doctor to take a closer look at the injury. Mild hamstring injuries (grade 1) heal themselves after a few days, while severe hamstring injuries (grade 3) may take months to fully recover and could even require surgery to repair muscle tears.
Pain Relief During Recovery
If you feel sudden hamstring pain, stop what you’re doing immediately. If your hamstring doesn’t show apparent signs of severe injury, start by applying RICE:
Give your hamstrings at least a few days to rest without additional activity. This may mean completely resting or using a splint and crutches to keep your hamstrings immobilized.
When using ice, apply a cold pack for 15 to 20 minutes every two to three hours. A gel cold compress is pretty effective, but you can also use a bag of frozen vegetables wrapped in a towel. Whatever you use, do NOT apply ice directly to your skin.
Regardless of when you apply ice, try to apply compression by bandaging your thigh with an elastic wrap. This will help to limit movement to allow your hamstrings to rest while also keeping swelling under control.
Finally, to help limit swelling, try to keep your injured leg elevated when you can. This will limit blood flow to your leg and keep swelling to a minimum.
Preventing Hamstring Injuries
Unfortunately, not all hamstring injuries can be prevented, as certain groups are at a higher risk than others. However, there are steps you can take to mitigate the potential for hamstring injuries.
If you’ve experienced a hamstring injury in the past, work with a physical therapist to help strengthen your hamstrings and improve hamstring flexibility. They can also help ensure that you practice your sport in a way that protects your hamstrings as much as possible.
Regular exercise can help maintain overall muscle fitness and limit the potential for fatigue injuries (if you exercise the right way). That said, make sure to take a day off here and there–your muscles need to recharge and recuperate.
Learn How to Protect Your Body
Preventing hamstring injuries starts with knowing your body. If you know how your muscles work and the unique risk factors you face, you can take steps to mitigate those risks and keep all of your muscles in good working condition.
Want more tips to maximize your health and wellness? Make sure to check out our blog for more great tips.