How to Treat a Pulled Hamstring

Hamstrings are muscles that are located along the back of the thigh. An injury occurs when one or more of these muscles are strained. Hamstring injuries can happen to anyone, but they are more likely for people who play sports such as basketball, soccer, football, or tennis. Hamstring pulls are painful, but they are usually not serious and can be treated at home with over-the-counter medication and other remedies.

Causes and Symptoms of a Pulled Hamstring

1. Causes

Hamstring muscles run from the hip to just below the knee, making it possible to bend the leg at the knee or extend it behind the back. Injuries occur when the muscle is stretched forward or backward further than comfortable.

2. Risk Factors

As stated above, anyone can strain or pull their hamstring, but some activities increase a person’s risk. These include:

  • Sports. Running and sprinting sports create the highest risk, though many dancers also pull hamstrings. Anytime an activity requires extreme stretching or quick stopping and starting, the risk increases.
  • Prior Injury. Having hurt your hamstring in the past increases chances for future injury. This is especially true if you return to activity before you are completely healed.
  • Poor Flexibility. Not stretching prior to exercise makes an injury more likely. When a muscle is tight, it is unable to bear the full force of activity during intense activities.
  • Imbalance. There is some evidence that muscle imbalance increases the likelihood of muscle strains. If your other leg muscles are stronger than your hamstrings, it could result in a hamstring injury.

3. Symptoms

Hamstring injuries produce sharp, sudden pain in the back of the thigh. The pain can also be accompanied by tearing or popping. Following the injury, the muscle will swell and feel tender, usually within a few hours. It can also be difficult to put weight on the leg and walk without limping.

4. When to See a Doctor

Some hamstring pulls can be treated at home, but there are times you will want to see a doctor. If you are unable to bear any weight on your leg or you are unable to walk more than a few steps, a doctor’s evaluation is probably a good idea.

How to Treat a Pulled Hamstring

Home Remedies

1. Rest

Avoid strenuous activity following the injury. The muscle needs time to repair. In severe cases, you might need to use crutches to avoid putting weight on the leg.

2. Ice

Apply ice to the area immediately following the injury. You should continue icing the area for several days following the injury, applying ice for no more than 20 minutes every two to three hours. Ice application reduces inflammation and pain, and helps the tissue to heal. Stop ice application if your skin becomes white. You should also speak with your doctor before icing an injury if you have diabetes, vascular disease, or problems with decreased sensation.

3. Compression

You can compress the muscles affected by the injury by using an elastic bandage. This should be done until swelling reduces. Be careful not to wrap the leg so tightly that circulation is impaired.

4. Leg Elevation

If possible, elevate your leg above your heart when resting in the days following your injury. By lifting your leg, the force of gravity allows the excess fluid to drain, reducing swelling.

5. OTC Medication

Pain medications you can purchase without a prescription keeps pain bearable. Choose ibuprofen, such as Advil and Motrin IB, or acetaminophen, such as Tylenol, and use as directed on the package.

6. Can or Crutches

If your doctor advises you to do so or you feel more comfortable keeping full weight off the injured leg, use a can or crutches in the days following the injury.

7. Rehabilitation Exercises

Stretching and strengthening hamstring muscles can help reduce the pain and heal the injury. Speak with your doctor before doing any stretching or exercising on the injury. Stretching prior to activity reduces your risk for injury.

In this video, Dr. Tara Pollak shares information about treating a hamstring pull with stretching:

Medical Treatment

1. Physical Therapy

Physical therapy might be an important part of the recovery process. It typically does not begin until the pain and swelling has subsided.

2. Surgery

Severe hamstring tears might require surgery.

How to Prevent a Pulled Hamstring

There are several things you can do to prevent hamstring injuries. These include:

  • Completing a thorough warm-up before engaging in physical activity - This helps to warm the muscles and make them more pliable.
  • Performing movement preparation exercises that target the area affecting the hamstrings
  • Stretching after a workout
  • Including backward running as part of your training program
  • Following the Ten Percent Rule, which limits training increases to no more than 10% per week
  • Avoiding too fast a return to activity following a hamstring injury

1. Warm Up Thoroughly

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From a standing position, extend your leg in front of you with the foot flexed. Leaning back slightly, bend your other knee so your pelvis tilts forward. Keeping the upper body upright, hold the stretch for up to 20 seconds and repeat the action with the other leg extended. The stretch should affect the back of the leg up the calf and thigh.

2. Stretch after Exercise

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Spend approximately five minutes cooling down after a workout session. Perform the following stretches during your cool down:

  • On your back, bring your knees to your chest. Cross the right leg over the left thigh and grasp the back of the left thigh with both hands and pull toward your chest. Repeat on the right leg.
  • On your back, lift your right leg, keeping your left leg on the floor. Pull the right leg toward you and hold for up to 15 seconds. Repeat the action with the left leg.
  • Sit with your back straight and legs bent. Place the soles of your feet together in front of you and lower your knees to the floor until you feel mild discomfort.
  • Standing, step your right leg forward, bending at the knee and leaning slightly forward. Straighten the left leg behind you and lower the left heal toward the ground. Repeat the action with the other leg.
  • On your right side, grab the top of your left foot and pull your heel toward your buttock, stretching the front of the thigh. Repeat the action with the other leg.
 
 
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