Frank was trying to beat an opposing player to a loose ball during a soccer game
when he felt a sharp pain at the back of his left leg. He dropped to the ground, but
when he tried to get up and walk, he fell down again and had to be helped off the
The next day, Frank went to see a doctor. The doctor asked him a few questions,
examined his leg, and told him he had a grade 2 strain — a partial tear — of one of
the muscles in his hamstring.
What Is a Hamstring Strain?
Three muscles run down the back of your leg, from your thigh to your knee — the
biceps femoris, semitendinosus, and semimembranosus
— and help you bend your knee and extend your hip. As a group, they are known as the
hamstring. A hamstring strain, sometimes called a pulled hamstring, happens when one
or more of these muscles gets stretched too far and starts to tear.
Hamstring strains can be mild, with little pain and a short recovery time. Or,
they can be severe and need surgery and crutches for weeks.
What Are the Symptoms of a Hamstring Strain?
Chances are that if you strain your hamstring while running, you'll know it immediately.
You'll feel a sharp pain and possibly a popping sensation at the back of your leg.
You won't be able to keep running and you may fall.
Other symptoms of a hamstring strain include:
pain in the back of your thigh when you bend or straighten your leg
tenderness, swelling, and bruising in the back of the thigh
weakness in your leg that lasts for a long time after the injury
How Is a Hamstring Strain Diagnosed?
A hamstring strain might be diagnosed on the sidelines by a trainer or when you
see a physical therapist. Often, you'll also see the doctor for a hamstring strain.
The doctor will examine your leg and ask you questions about how the injury happened
and how much pain you have.
The examination will help figure out what grade of strain you have:
Grade 1; this is a mild strain. You may experience some pain
when you use your leg, but it will be minor and there will be minimal swelling.
Grade 2; this is a partial tear of one or more of the hamstring muscles.
This may cause you to limp when you walk and feel some pain during activity. You might
see some swelling and bruising, and you might not be able to straighten your leg all
Grade 3; this is a complete tear of one or more of the hamstring muscles.
You'll feel pain and not be able to straighten your leg all the way, and you'll notice
swelling right away. Walking will be very difficult and may require crutches.
What Causes a Hamstring Strain?
A hamstring strain generally occurs as a result of muscle overload, such as when
you are running and your leg is fully stretched out just before your foot strikes
the ground. When your foot strikes the ground and all your weight is on it, the muscles
can get stretched too far and they may start to tear.
People who take part in certain activities that involve sprinting or jumping (like
track and field, soccer, football, lacrosse, basketball, and dance) are more at risk
of getting hamstring strains. These kinds of injuries are also more common in teens
who are going through growth spurts. That's because the leg bones may grow faster
than a person's muscles, pulling the muscles tight and leaving them more susceptible
to getting stretched too far.
Some of the more common things that can contribute to a hamstring strain include:
Not warming up properly before exercising. Tight muscles are
much more likely to strain than muscles that are kept strong and flexible.
Being out of shape or overdoing it. Weak muscles are less able
to handle the stress of exercise, and muscles that are tired lose some of their ability
to absorb energy, making them more likely to get injured.
An imbalance in the size of your leg muscles. The quadriceps,
the muscles at the front of your legs, is often larger and more powerful than your
hamstring muscles. When you do an activity that involves running, the hamstring muscles
can get tired more quickly than the quadriceps, putting them at greater risk of a
Poor technique. If you don't have a good running technique, it
can increase the stress on your hamstring muscles.
Returning to activities too quickly after an injury. Hamstring
strains need plenty of time and rest to heal completely. Trying to come back from
a strain too soon will make you more likely to injure your hamstring again.
How Can You Prevent a Hamstring Strain?
Keeping your muscles in good shape is the best way to prevent hamstring injuries.
Here are some ways to help protect yourself against them (and other sports injuries!):
Warm up properly before exercise or intense physical activity.
Jog in place for a minute or two, or do some jumping jacks to get your muscles
going. Then do some
— ask your coach or an athletic trainer to show you how. After you play,
do some static stretches where you gently stretch your muscles, holding each stretch
for 30 seconds or more.
Keep your muscles strong and flexible year-round. Get regular
exercise and adopt a good stretching program so your muscles don't get a shock when
you do an intense workout.
Increase the duration and intensity of your exercise slowly.
A good rule of thumb is to make sure you add no more than 10% each week to the miles
you run or the time you spend playing a sport.
If you feel pain in your thigh, stop your activity immediately.
If you're worried that you might have strained your hamstring, give it time to rest
and don't go back to your activity until your leg feels strong, you have no pain,
and you can move your injured leg as freely as the other one.
What's the Treatment for a Hamstring Strain?
The good news is that only the most severe muscle tears require surgery. Most hamstring
strains will heal on their own or with some physical therapy.
To treat a hamstring strain, follow these tips:
Use the RICE formula as soon as possible after the injury:
Rest. Limit the amount of walking you do, and try to
avoid putting weight on your leg if your doctor recommends this.
Ice. Use a bag of ice or a cold compress to help reduce
swelling for the first 48 hours after the injury. This should begin as soon as possible
after the injury and then every 3 to 4 hours for 20 to 30 minutes at a time until
the swelling is gone. Wrap the ice or ice pack in a towel. Don't put ice or ice
packs directly on the skin because it can cause tissue damage.
Compress. Use elastic bandages or sports wraps to help
support your leg and keep the swelling down if your doctor recommends doing so. Doctors
recommend using elastic compression bandages instead of compression shorts because
you can adjust the bandages as needed.
Elevate. When you are sitting or lying down, keep your
Take pain medicine. Ibuprofen and other non-steroidal anti-inflammatory
drugs (NSAIDs) can help relieve pain and reduce swelling in the leg. Some doctors
prefer other medicines like acetaminophen. Talk with your doctor about what you should
Do stretching and strengthening exercises. Slowly adding some
exercises can help to improve your leg's strength and flexibility (and, perhaps, prevent
the injury from happening again). A doctor, athletic trainer, or physical
therapist can help determine when your hamstring is ready for these exercises.
If you have a complete tear of one of your hamstring muscles or tendons, your doctor
might want you to have surgery to reattach the tendon to the bone or fix the tendon.
Not overdoing things is key when it comes to this type of injury. Many people have
a hamstring strain come back because they returned to play too quickly. So follow
your doctor's advice and don't push yourself or feel pressure to get back into sports
or other activities too soon.