woman stretching her hamstring

Recovering from a Hamstring Strain

You’d be hard-pressed to find any sports activity that doesn’t involve the legs. Running, jumping, climbing, turning quickly, and sliding. They’re all major parts of sports. However, the primary muscle groups we use for all this activity are important. And every now and then something goes wrong.

One of the most common sports injuries across almost every sport is pulled hamstrings. And recovering from a hamstring injury is frustrating and difficult because your entire leg needs to be inactive during healing.

Understanding the Hamstring

The hamstring is a cord of clustered muscles that starts at the back of your upper-thigh and runs like a seam through your knee and to the back of your ankle. That back-ankle ridge when your feet are flexed is, in fact, the hamstring connecting to your heel. To understand what the hamstring does and why it’s so important, think of it as a string in a marionette puppet. It runs along the back of the leg so that when you want to bend the knee or point the toe, the body merely pulls the hamstring like a puppet string. By increasing the tension, the joints bend in response and the leg curls up. Then, when the hamstring is loosened, your leg can fall straight and relaxed. However, this also means that damage to your hamstring can also damage your ability to control the leg or make doing so very painful.

How a Hamstring Injury Happens

Like all muscles, your hamstring muscles need to be warmed up before you stretch it in the course of exercise. It may work perfectly well for every day sitting, standing, and walking but more intense physical activity can pull it too far, too fast. Running, especially sprinting with large steps, is often the cause of hamstring strain but the most dangerous activities for an un-warmed hamstring are changing direction quickly on the balls of your feet, lunging for something, or jumping. All of these activities require using the hamstring as a spring that stretches far and then snaps back. In good conditions, this provides you with a great deal of power and speed but a cold or insufficiently flexible hamstring can tear quite painfully instead. How badly the tear is determined not only how painful the injury will be but how long you will be off the field resting your newly injured leg.

Symptoms of a Hamstring Strain

It’s important that you pay attention to early signs of a hamstring strain. Minor strains often feel as though they can be ‘walked off’ and many athletes try to play through the small amount of pain, thus damaging their hamstrings further and making the problem worse. The earliest symptom can disguise itself as an oddly placed hip-cramp with a small twinge or a little pain at the back of the thigh when moving, stretching, or taking a step. As the extent of the damage gets worse, so too will the pain until eventually, you may have a difficult time walking or moving at all without intense discomfort.

However, this isn’t always how a hamstring injury progresses. Some people will feel sudden and severe pain during exercise often accompanied by a snapping or popping feeling. This is the sensation of the hamstring taking sudden intense damage rather than a slow stretching tear. If you experience sudden hamstring damage, stop working out immediately and have someone take you to a medical professional.

Other symptoms that you should keep an eye out for or expect if you already have a hamstring strain include pain in the back of the thigh and lower buttock when using the leg, tenderness at the point of damage and even visible bruising as your leg tries to pool blood and help the muscle.

How to Treat a Hamstring Strain

Treating hamstring strain isn’t complicated, but it is one of the most challenging recovery cycles for anyone who enjoys an active lifestyle. The primary aspect of healing a hamstring strain is rest. Rest the leg as much as you can using it for very little. Even if your doctor doesn’t say it’s required, consider getting a comfortable and properly sized pair of crutches so that you can move around the house and at work easily without asking too much from the leg. If your doctor clears it, you might be able to walk and stand comfortably as long as you don’t take big strides or expect the lege to take too much weight.

To speed up recovery, consider spending a lot of time sitting with your leg propped up comfortably on a pillow. When you’re not doing chores at home, when you’re at the desk at work, and anywhere else you can manage it, prop the leg up and let it rest.

If the pain is intense, there are also a few other steps you can take. Ice, for instance, can help to bring down any painful swelling near the point of injury and should be applied for about 20-30 minutes every two hours. To avoid a mess, use a cold pack or ice in a plastic bag wrapped in a towel. Compression may also help with swelling and often feels like it’s providing additional support to the sore and damaged leg muscles. When the swelling goes down, switch from ice packs to hot baths and hot towels instead to relax the muscles and increase healing blood flow.

Finally, if you decide to take painkillers to help you work or sleep, make sure to stick with the NSAIDs or “Non-Steroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drugs” like Advil, Motrin, and Aleve. These will help to both reduce the pain and the swelling which is doubly helpful for your recovery process.

Using a Brace for Hamstring Pain

Heat and compression are important parts of remaining mobile while recovering from a hamstring strain. While the strain itself may have resulted from excessive stretching or strain on a cold hamstring, a compression brace can help you from making this injury worse with everyday strain while the tendon and related muscles heal from the initial injury. The soft brace material insulates the area around your injury and can help you keep the tendons and muscles inside warm. This will make sure that the injured tissue stays soft and able to flex with your movements without adding further strain during recovery. Heat also accelerates blood flow, allowing your blood to quickly provide the resources needed to heal the damaged tissue.

Beyond keeping the healing area warm, a compression brace can also help relieve the pain of a hamstring strain by distributing the pressure and support needed by the area of your leg. The compression will hold the tissue together when the rest of your leg flexes to prevent additional strain and when you put weight on the leg, the brace can distribute that pressure around the entire circumference of the brace.

However, where your hamstring strain occurs will determine what kind of compression brace you need. The two most common hamstring locations are either the back of your calf, just above the ankle, or the cluster of muscles at the back of your thigh just under the buttock. The back of your calf just below the knee. For a lower hamstring strain, you’ll want a brace that closely resembles a neoprene sock or leg warmer, possibly with a loop for the heel. For an injury close to the knee, a traditional compression knee brace may be the right answer. And for an injury close to the hip, you may want a brace that just wraps the thigh or one that secures around the waist as well.

Staying in Shape After a Hamstring Strain

One of the major concerns for most athletes after a hamstring strain is the worry about losing muscle mass and tone during the long recovery process. While it’s true that you absolutely should not work out your hamstring-strained leg until it is fully healed. you can also work the rest of your body just fine as long as the damaged leg is resting. During recovery, take a break from the field sports and spend a little time in the gym with arm and core workout machines that allow to safely sit and park your leg while working other parts of your body.