Care for Painful Tight Hamstrings

If you sit a lot during the day, like most people do, there's a good chance you have tight hamstrings, according to ExRx.net. This group of three muscles — semitendinosus, semimembranosus and biceps femoris — runs from the back of your pelvis to the back of your knee.

There are several stretches for the hamstrings. (Image: Hero Images/Hero Images/GettyImages)

Hamstring pain can develop from a muscle strain, or microtearing of the muscle fibers. According to an article published in the June-July 2017 issue of the journal Revista Brasileira de Ortopedia, the hamstrings are the most commonly injured muscle group in sports. These injuries most often occur in running sports, and are caused by overuse.

Causes of Hamstring Pain

To properly care for your hamstring injury, first determine the underlying cause of the hamstring pain. Sometimes it's obvious — a muscle strain typically causes pain right after the injury occurs. A muscle cramp or sudden tightening of your hamstrings can also be painful.

In addition to pain, muscle strains can also cause swelling, redness, bruising, tenderness to the touch, weakness and limited ability to move through your normal range of motion, cautions the Mayo Clinic. While much of the time a hamstring injury can be treated at home, there are certain types that warrant a visit to the doctor.

Muscle strains are classified based on severity, as described by Harvard Health Publishing. Grade 1 hamstring injuries affect few muscle fibers. Although they are painful, you won't lose muscle strength. Grade 2 strains affect more fibers and usually cause swelling and loss of strength. Grade 1 or 2 hamstring strain can often be successfully treated at home.

Grade 3 strains affect the entire muscle and are very painful. You might hear an audible "pop" when this injury occurs, or see a dent in the back of your thigh where the muscle tore. Most likely, you won't be able to bear any weight on the affected leg. See a doctor immediately if you suspect this injury — you might need surgery.

Immediate Treatment for Hamstring Strain

Hamstring strains should be treated using the RICE principle, according to Mayo Clinic. This acronym stands for rest, ice, compression and elevation.

Rest your hamstring by not doing any aggravating activity until your pain subsides. This might be difficult, because just standing on the affected leg will likely be painful. You might need to use crutches for a few days to keep the weight off your leg.

Apply ice to your hamstring for 15 to 20 minutes every few hours for the first three days after injury. Because your hamstrings have a large surface area, you might want to try sitting in an ice bath.

Wrap your thigh with a compression bandage to help reduce swelling. Begin just above your knee and stop at the top of your thigh. Overlap each layer by about 50 percent. Don't wrap too tightly — if you have tingling or numbness in your foot or if your skin turns blue or purple, you've compromised blood flow to the area. Elevate your leg above the level of your heart whenever possible to help gravity reduce your swelling.

Stretch Tight Hamstrings

Stretching tight hamstrings can help improve range of motion and reduce pain. However, if done incorrectly, the stretching can lead to more pain — or even muscle damage.

Stretches should be uncomfortable, but they should not increase your hamstring pain. A hamstring stretch can be performed in a variety of ways. Pick one or two that are most comfortable to start. Hold each stretch for 20 to 30 seconds, and repeat them several times.

Move 1: Seated Hamstring Stretch

  1. Sit on the edge of a firm chair.
  2. Straighten your affected leg and rest your heel on the floor. Keep your other leg bent.
  3. Hinge forward at your hips while keeping your lower back flat.
  4. Stop and hold when you feel a strong pull on the back of your thigh.

Move 2: Supine Active Hamstring Stretch

  1. Lie on your back on a firm surface.
  2. Bend your knees and place your feet on the floor.
  3. Lift your affected leg until your knee is pointed at the ceiling.
  4. Place your hands behind your knee.
  5. Slowly straighten your knee until you feel a stretch, hold for a count of five; then bend it back to the starting position.
  6. Repeat 10 times.

Move 3: Standing Hamstring Stretch

  1. Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart.
  2. Keeping your lower back flat, hinge forward at your hips until you feel a stretch along your hamstrings.
  3. If this position is too uncomfortable for your back, modify the stretch by placing the heel of your involved leg up on a step or chair. This will reduce the distance your back is required to bend.

Move 4: Hamstring Stretch in Long Sitting

  1. Sit on the floor with both legs out straight.
  2. Hinge forward at your hips until you feel a stretch along the back of your thigh.

If your hamstrings are significantly tight, you might not be able to assume a long-sitting position. Try bending one leg, bringing the sole of your foot to the inside of your opposite thigh. This will reduce tension on your back.

When to Seek Physical Therapy

If home remedies aren't increasing your mobility or reducing your pain, consider seeing a physical therapist (PT). PTs have access to a wider variety of pain-relieving modalities, such as ultrasound, electrical stimulation and cold laser. Manual techniques can also be performed by a PT to increase blood flow to the injured area and relax the tight muscle fibers.

A PT can help determine the underlying cause of your hamstring pain and tightness. Whether it's posture related or a flaw in your exercising technique, your therapist can give you solutions to help prevent your symptoms from occurring and reoccurring.

Sometimes, hamstring tightness can be a side effect of dysfunction in another area of the body, such as your lower back. Improper footwear that doesn't effectively support your arches can lead to problems in the knees and hips as well. A PT will assess your body mechanics to see if there are other areas that need to be addressed.

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