Hamstring cramps are painful spasms in the muscles at the back of your thigh. These types of cramps often occur during exercise when muscles are very fatigued, and in people who are dehydrated and have lost important body salts through sweating. Hamstring cramps can typically be relieved with stretching, massage, and ice or heat application. Cramps caused by dehydration may also be relieved by consuming water with added electrolytes.
Stretching and Massage
Hamstring cramps cause tightening in muscles that bend your knee and pull your hip backward. They can be stretched by sitting with the affected leg out in front of you. The knee is slowly lowered toward the ground until your leg is fully straight. If this is not painful, you can then bend forward at the waist and reach your arms toward your toes. Stretches are typically held for 30 seconds, up to 5 times in a row. In this same seated position, the hamstrings can be massaged by wrapping your hands around your thigh and gently squeezing and releasing the hamstring muscles -- as if you are kneading dough -- until the cramp subsides.
Ice or Heat
Ice application can reduce pain caused by a hamstring cramp. Ice temporarily decreases blood flow to the muscles and reduces pain by making nerves in the area less sensitive. This can also make the muscle more comfortable while being stretched. An ice pack or cold pack is typically applied immediately after the cramp develops and left on for 10 to 15 minutes.
Heat is also effective for reducing hamstring cramps. Heat increases blood flow to the muscles and helps them relax as they are stretched. However, muscle cramps that are associated with injury or inflammation, such as a tear in the muscle, can be made worse with heat if applied immediately after injury. In these situations, ice should be used first, and heat can be applied 48 to 72 hours after the injury occurred.
Warnings and Precautions
See your doctor if you experience repeated hamstring cramps, particularly if they are not related to exercise or are occurring at night. Leg cramps can be associated with medical conditions that affect your blood vessels, nerves or electrolyte balance.
Reviewed by: Tina M. St. John, M.D.