The term “pulled hamstring” or “hamstring strain” is a common phrase in athlete and spectator language. However, their meaning, cause, prevention and treatment aren’t always clear.
The hamstring muscles are located on the back of your thigh and cover the entire area from the sit bones under your buttocks to the back of your knee. While sitting, reach your right hand under your right thigh; you’re touching the hamstring muscles.
The word “hamstring” actually refers to the three muscles (biceps, femoris, which is located on the back outside, and semitendinosis and semimembrinosis, which are located on the back inside of the thigh).
While sitting, dig your heel into the floor and try to bend your knee and you will feel this muscle group working. Their job is to bend the knee and/or move the thigh backward in relation to your body.
The term “strain” always refers to a pull or a microtrauma of a muscle. The term sprain refers to trauma of a ligament.
There are three grades of hamstring strain. Generally, Grade 1 strains involve tightness in the back of the thigh, but don’t affect walking and the thigh doesn’t swell. In Grade 1 strains, the pain can be localized to a small area when a few muscle fibers have been torn. In Grade 2 strains. a larger area of pain will be present and there may be some bruising and swelling of the muscle. Because of your body’s protective response, you may limp when walking and find it difficult to straighten your knee.
A Grade 3 strain is a complete tearing of one of the three muscles and is usually accompanied by a “balling up” or spasming of that muscle. Crutches are necessary to walk. This degree of strain requires medical intervention.
A hamstring strain can result from several different factors. Generally, the combination of a tight hamstring coupled with quick sprinting movement put an individual at risk. A strain can occur over a long period of repetitive stress from biomechanic malalignment or persistent repetitive stress. An example may be an auto mechanic who spends long hours bent forward over a car—locking his knees backward. This stress will eventually cause the hamstrings to tighten to protect the knee. If this individual now plays softball without first warming up, a quick sprint to first base may lead to a hamstring pull.
In general, sports that involve sprinting or quick starts and stops, especially in cooler weather, are common for sprains. Examples include soccer, softball/baseball, football, tennis, basketball and track and field events.
General treatment of an acute hamstring strain includes rest, ice, compression and elevation. It is important to use ice applications of 10-15 minutes, 2-3 times a day during the first 24-48 hours to prevent increased swelling and bruising. Heat can be used after 3-4 days. If you suspect a Grade 2 or 3 strain, seek medical evaluation.
Much can be done to prevent hamstring strains. Proper biomechanical alignment of the pelvis and legs decreases the chance of pre-existing mechanical stress on the hamstrings. A good flexibility program will balance the leg muscles and decrease the chance of a strain during a sudden sprint. Proper ankle mobility and supportive footwear are also considerations.
So remember: Pay attention to signs your body may be giving you, and attend to that tight hamstring before you sprint to first base!