A hamstring strain, also referred to as a pulled hamstring, can be quite painful, but the good news is that it can be easy to treat and often heals quickly. This article reviews everything you need to know about pulled hamstrings, including the different degrees of hamstring strains and how to prevent them.
A pulled hamstring is the result of a strain on the hamstring muscles (the muscles that run along the back of the thigh). A “strain” means that the muscle has been stretched too fat and may have begun to tear. Many athletes experience this type of injury, though it can also result from other activities. Most pulled hamstrings can be treated at home, though more serious cases require a visit to the doctor.
There are three degrees of a strain, which are defined by the following characteristics:
- Grade 1: This is the mildest type of strain. It is accompanying by little to no swelling and slight pain when using the leg.
- Grade 2: This is a moderate type of strain where a partial tear develops in one or more hamstring muscles. People with a grade 2 hamstring strain may limp when they walk due to pain in their muscles. Swelling and bruising may occur, and it may be difficult to straighten out the leg.
- Grade 3: This is the most severe type of strain where a complete tear develops in one or more hamstring muscles. People with a grade 3 hamstring strain have difficulty walking and often need to use crutches to get around. Swelling occurs immediately, and bending or straightening the knee will cause pain.
A hamstring strain causes one or more of the following symptoms:
- Sudden, sharp pain in the back of the thigh when the injury occurs
- A popping or tearing sensation in the muscle at the time of injury
- Pain when bending or straightening the leg
- Swelling and tenderness in the affected area for the first few hours after the injury
- Bruising in the affected area for the first few days after the injury
- Weakness in the leg that lasts for as long as several weeks after the injury
- Difficulty walking
Causes And Risk Factors
A hamstring strain is caused by the hamstring muscles being stretched too far and possibly torn. The risk of sustaining this type of injury increases if any of the following apply to you:
- Your muscles are tight: It helps to stretch before using the hamstring muscles in running or other sports.
- Your muscles are imbalanced: Having much stronger quadriceps muscles (those in the front of the thigh) than hamstring muscles can allow the hamstring muscles to tire more quickly, which can lead to a strain.
- Your muscles are fatigued: When your muscles get too tired, they are more susceptible to injury.
- Your muscles are poorly conditioned: If your muscles are weak, the stress of exercise is more likely to injure them.
- You participate in a sport like soccer, football or basketball.
- You are a runner or sprinter.
- You are a dancer.
- You are an older athlete who mostly walks for exercise.
- You are an adolescent athlete who is still growing.
Fortunately, there are lots of ways to prevent a hamstring strain, including:
- Stretching and warming up before exercise or intense physical activity: Get warmed up by jogging for a few minutes. Then, fully stretch out your muscles by holding various stretches for at least 30 seconds (also see: 10 Dynamic Warm Up Exercises).
- Increasing exercise intensity slowly: If you aren’t exercising or doing a particular physical activity regularly, work your way up to longer periods of time slowly rather than jumping in quickly to give your muscles time to adjust. It’s suggested to increase time spent exercising or distance run by no more than 10 percent per week.
- Keep your muscles strong year-round: Exercise regularly to keep your muscles in shape so they are prepared for all type of physical activities.
- Stop immediately when you feel pain: If you feel pain in your thigh, stop immediately and rest until your leg feels strong and your pain gone.
For mild cases, a pulled hamstring can be treated at home. Use the RICE method (Rest, Ice, Compress, Elevate) to help your muscles heal. You can also take non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs like ibuprofen for the pain. Once the swelling and pain have improved, begin gently stretching your muscles to improve strength and flexibility.
In more serious cases, it’s important to see a doctor about your hamstring injury. Make an appointment with your doctor if you:
- Can’t walk more than a few steps without significant pain
- Can’t bear any weight on your injured leg
- Have numbness in any part of the injury leg
- Have a history of injuring the same muscles in the past
- See red streaks or redness spreading out from injured area
- Are unsure of how serious your hamstring strain is
A more severe strain or muscle tear may require walking aids (such as crutches or a leg brace) or physical therapy. In rare cases, surgery may be required.
For most people, a pulled hamstring is just a minor inconvenience. By knowing how to prevent it, you may be able to save yourself from a more severe injury and reduce downtime for a less serious strain.