Injury Tip Sheet: Hamstring Strain

Bryan Christie

Bryan Christie

Injury Tip Sheet: Hamstring Strain

Learn what you need to know to help treat and prevent this common leg injury

Kathy Weber, M.D., M.S. Daphne R. Scott, PT, Dsc Chicago, IL

Fast facts

  • The hamstring is actually a group of three different muscles
  • Hamstring and back strains are the two most common types of strains
  • Most hamstring strains occur at the thick part of the muscle where it joins the tendon

What you need to know

What is a hamstring strain?

  • The hamstring muscles are the muscles that are on the back of the thigh.  The muscles begin at the ischial tuberosity (part of the pelvis bone) and continue down the back of your thigh to their attachments below the knee.  They help provide stability and motion control when you bend your leg
  • A strain occurs when muscle fibers are stretched beyond their capacity
  • A hamstring strain is when one or more of the three muscles that make up the hamstring become overstretched or, if the strain is severe, torn

Signs & symptoms

  • The most common symptom is sharp pain in the back of the thigh
  • Cramping and spasms in the muscle
  • With severe strains it is possible to hear or feel a popping
  • Typically if a tear occurs there is noticeable bruising in the back of the thigh
  • Tenderness in the back of the thigh when walking or bending the leg
  • May have difficulty sitting pain free especially if the injury is closer to its origin near the pelvis

When should I see a doctor or other professional?

  • You should see a doctor if the pain keeps you from your normal routine
  • If pain does not improve after two or three weeks of self-treatment

Causes

  • Hamstring strains often occur during exercises that involve running or jumping
  • In severe cases it is possible to hear a pop or snap when the muscle tears
  • Hamstring strains may occur when the muscles have not been properly stretched

Risk factors

  • Sports that require explosive leg action, like track and field or soccer, place additional stress on the hamstring
  • Athletes whose hamstrings are significantly weaker than their quadriceps are more prone to hamstring injuries
  • Older athletes or people with a previous history of hamstring injuries
  • Teenagers going through sudden growth spurts are also prone to mild hamstring strains

What you can do

Prevention

  • The key to preventing a hamstring injury is flexibility—stretch often
  • Incorporate strength training designed to balance the muscles on the back and the front of your leg
  • Do not increase your workout intensity by more than 10% a week

Recommendations for treatment and rehab

  • Treatment for a hamstring strain involves an icing and anti-inflammatory regimen to reduce swelling within the first 3 days of the injury.  Icing after activity once the individual has returned to activity is important
  • Rest is important to allow the micro tears in the muscle fibers time to heal, otherwise they can easily be reinjured
  • Elevate the leg when possible to improve blood flow and circulation
  • Icing is recommended during the acute injury time period (typically 3-5 days) then heat may be incorporated to improve circulation and facilitate healing of the injured area.  Icing should still be used especially after any activity to help reduce any inflammation that may occur with the activity

What can I do to stay active?

  • Participate in activities that do not reproduce or increase pain
  • It is important to allow the hamstring to heal prior to returning to activities that require hamstring activation
  • Gentle pain-free stretching
  • Activities such as swimming with a buoy between the legs (initially) and circuit weight training without involvement of the lower extremities can be an option to remaining active while recovering
  • Typically activities such as running, elliptical trainer, and stair stepper typically are too taxing on the hamstring during the healing process

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