But how can you determine whether a tweak or tightness in your hamstring is a cause for concern or not?
In this article, we'll look at some advice on managing hamstring tightness: what causes the problem, how to treat it, and suggestions for reducing your risk of suffering a more severe hamstring injury.
Please note: This information does not contain or constitute medical advice or a medical opinion, and it is provided for informational purposes only. You should always consult a qualified and licensed medical professional prior to beginning or modifying any diet or exercise program.
What Is a Tight Hamstring?
A tight hamstring is a condition in which the muscles of the hamstring group are strained and overused.
The hamstrings are three muscles on the back of the thigh that help to flex the knee and extend the hip. The primary functions of these muscles include:
- Pulling the leg backward (back extension)
- Bending the thigh at the knee (flexion)
- Activating with other muscles to extend the hip (hyperextend)
When tight, the hamstrings may cause limitations in these functions due to pain and muscle spasms.
Hamstring tightness will often cause a "catching" sensation while trying to run, jump, or change direction quickly. Pain may also be felt while trying to sit down or stand up from a seated position.
Tight hamstrings are very common in athletes and can be extremely painful. It is a condition when the muscles in your leg, mainly located at the back of the thigh, become short and tight.
A tight hamstring is not a disease but an indication of something wrong with your body mechanics or structure. So if you are having tight hamstring pain, it doesn't mean that you're going to have a long-term problem.
What Causes Tight Hamstrings?
The most common cause of hamstring injury is overuse, although it can also be caused by a sudden trauma or fall.
Depending on your age, gender, and level of activity, causes for tight hamstrings include:
- Incorrect posture or postural imbalance (especially in sedentary people)
- Muscle fatigue (repeated use)
- Overuse (sports activities)
- Side posture when sleeping resulting in prolonged pressure on the spine
- Hernia or slipped disc
- Obesity (increased load on the spine)
- Weak abdominal muscles (weakened core stability due to inadequate abdominal exercises)
- Poor flexibility due to lack of stretching routines (for children and adults)
Tight hamstrings can also be caused by improper or inadequate warm-up routines, genetics, and muscle conditioning.
Signs and Symptoms of Tight Hamstrings
A tight hamstring is normally identified by sharp pain or spasms. The main symptoms are:
- Pain in the lower back. Pain in the hamstring usually involves the lower back, buttocks, and upper thighs. Other common locations for pain include the knee, ankle, and foot.
- Tightness in the lower back and buttocks. When you have a tight hamstring, you tend to maintain a hunched posture with your upper body leaning forward from your hips. Your buttocks tighten as well. Both of these factors contribute to lower back pain since your body is overcompensating for the tight hamstring muscle by curving inward.
- Sciatica-like symptoms. Sciatica refers to pain that travels down one leg from the base of the spine to the foot or toes. This pain is commonly caused by a herniated disc pressing on nerves in the lower back or by poor posture that causes pinching of nerves in this region of your body.
Other symptoms may include:
- Pain while sitting with your legs straight out
- Pain while stretching
- Pain while squatting or kneeling
- Pain around the inner thigh area
- Pain when going upstairs
- Pain when rising from a seated position
If you have any of the above symptoms, then you may have strained your hamstring muscles. If not treated properly, hamstring tightness may result in a tear of the muscle fibers or tendons of thigh muscles that connect your knee joint to your hip joint.
Tips for Managing and Loosening Tight Hamstrings
In most cases, you can solve this problem using conservative management methods. Try the following techniques for preventing and treating tight hamstrings.
Stretching is one of the most effective methods for loosening tight hamstrings. Stretching before running loosens up areas that tend to tighten up during long runs or other workouts. Stretching after prevents soreness and tightness the next day.
Make sure you tailor your stretches to your needs. Everyone's body is different. For example, if you have a history of back pain, avoid stretching your hamstrings when lying flat on the floor. Instead, try sitting on a chair or bench with a towel underneath your knees, or with a pillow behind you for support.
Your muscles are most flexible right after you've exercised, so plan for a post-workout stretch. If possible, exercise in the morning and follow up with stretches. This can be an invigorating way to start the day and can keep hamstring tightness at bay.
Massage Therapy for Tight Hamstrings
Massage therapy is another popular way of loosening tight hamstrings, especially when muscle imbalance is contributing to the condition. Massage therapy offers many potential benefits that simple stretching cannot provide. While stretching can offer some relief from tightness, it does not stimulate muscle relaxation like massage does, or work deep into the tissue.
Sports massage may also reduce muscle pain after you've worked out. If you're experiencing muscle tightness in your hamstrings, there is a good chance that other muscles near them are also tight, including your lower back and calves. Massage therapy can treat the whole area and help stop hamstring tightness from recurring.
Foam Rolling Hamstrings
Foam rolling is a form of self-myofascial release (SMR), which is a fancy way of saying that you're manually applying pressure to your muscles. It is a technique where a foam cylinder is used to massage areas of the body that tend to be tight. Foam rolling works mainly by breaking up trigger points, or knots, in the muscle fibers and tendons to improve blood flow.
Injections are a more extreme method of treatment that may be used by athletes with chronic hamstring problems. For example, for patients with chronic hamstring tendinopathy, local injection of a corticosteroid into the ischial bursa has proven to provide pain relief and increase mobility.
Hot and Cold Therapy
Heat is used to stimulate blood flow to the affected area. This increases the circulation and movement of fluids to the affected muscles. The increased blood flow brings oxygen, nutrients, and other important chemicals that are needed by the muscle cells to repair themselves. Heat can also help relax tense muscles, which can ease muscle spasms and cramping.
Cold therapy, on the other hand, slows down chemical activity in the injured area. It numbs pain receptors in the skin and muscle tissue, which allows you to do more with your body without being in as much pain. Cold therapy also encourages blood vessels to constrict and decrease swelling associated with many injuries and arthritis. By decreasing swelling, it makes room for new cells that are trying to heal a wound.
The combination of hot and cold therapies can be very effective in easing muscle tension. Before using this type of treatment, it's best to consult a specialist who can tell you what type of treatment will work best for your hamstring tightness.
When to See an Expert
In many cases, you can fix tight hamstrings by doing some simple exercises and stretches on your own. However, if your symptoms are severe or persistent, you may need to see an expert for help. If you suspect you have a muscle tear, rather than just tightness, you should certainly see a physical therapist or physician.
Here's how to tell if professional advice is needed:
- Your symptoms are getting worse over time. If your hamstring pain continues for more than 2 weeks, or keeps recurring after it goes away, it's time to seek help from a physical therapist or sports trainer.
- Your symptoms are serious or severe. You can't walk well or engage in regular activities even with treatment from a physical therapist or doctor. You may need to see a surgeon for repair surgery.
- ASLR test fail. Lie on your back with your legs straight. With your legs still extended, raise your heel from the surface of the bed or floor. The level of pain and ease of the task will provide information on the severity of your injury. A test failure is when you cannot do this movement at all.
Tight hamstrings are never a good thing, particularly for athletes. This condition can lead to hip and knee problems and other physiological issues. Addressing tight hamstrings should be a top priority. You should not ignore them.
If you've experienced hamstring tightness accompanied by sharp pain, weakness in the muscles, or numbness and tingling in the leg, or if your pain has worsened or persists, schedule an appointment with a professional right away.