How to Treat a Pulled Hamstring
You’re running in your neighborhood when, in the middle of a sprint interval, you feel a sudden pain in the back of your leg. It may be a pulled hamstring — a common injury that can happen when you overload one of your hamstrings (a group of muscles in the back of your thigh).
So how do you know if you have a pulled hamstring — and is there anything you can do to speed up your recovery? Here’s what you need to know.
What Causes a Pulled Hamstring
You’ll usually realize you’ve pulled a hamstring as soon as it happens. “This is not the type of injury that has a mysterious origin,” says Tom Biggart, PT, DPT, ATC, CSCS, a physical therapist and strength coach in the greater Boston area.
A pulled hamstring usually has one of five causes, Biggart says:
- Stretching beyond a safe range of motion (like when you slip)
- Poor training (favoring your quads over the hamstrings and glutes)
- Insufficient warm-up (the muscle isn’t pliable and ready to work for high loads)
How Do You Know You Have A Pulled Hamstring?
In addition to the sudden or intense pain that usually occurs with a pulled hamstring, “there may also be bruising, swelling, and/or weakness afterwards, depending on how severe the pull is,” says Jasmine Marcus, PT, DPT, CSCS, a strength and conditioning specialist and physical therapist based in Ithaca, NY.
If you think you may have injured your hamstring, be sure to see a doctor or a trained medical professional. “Occasionally hamstring strains can be confused with other injuries, such as sciatic nerve irritation,” says Marcus.
How Do You Treat A Pulled Hamstring?
Once you have a diagnosis, there are a few steps you can take to help a pulled hamstring heal as quickly as possible.
Step 1: Rest your leg.
“When you strain a muscle — which is what a pulled hamstring is — there isn’t much you can do initially,” Biggart says. “Stretching the muscle will irritate the pull. Contracting the muscle will also irritate it.”
Step 2: Avoid heat (for now).
“In general, you want to avoid heating a new injury,” Biggart says. “It tends to promote the already-present inflammatory response.”
Step 3: Ice your hamstring.
“Ice is usually recommended in the first 24 to 48 hours after an acute injury,” Marcus says. Research suggests that, during the first 24 hours, ice can be more effective than heat in soothing sore muscles. Ice for 15 to 30 minutes, then wait an hour before doing it again.
Step 4: Manage your pain.
Elevating your leg may help, but be sure to support the entire leg so your hamstring can rest. Kinesio tape or an elastic bandage can also offer extra support. And you may want to talk to your doctor about taking any over-the-counter pain medications, like ibuprofen or naproxen.
Step 5: Ease back in.
If your pulled hamstring is mild, you can do some light workouts when you feel ready (and any bruising or swelling has subsided). “It is best to keep moving in ways that don’t aggravate the hamstring, such as gentle walking or biking,” Marcus says. “It’s important to start increasing range of motion eventually, and slowly begin strengthening again.”
If your pulled hamstring is severe, Marcus adds, be patient — you might need to rest for a few more days (or weeks) or even use crutches.
How Do You Prevent a Pulled Hamstring?
“Hamstring injuries have a high rate of re-injury,” Biggart says, so your goal is to prevent another pulled hamstring. After you’ve rested — and there’s no pain, swelling, or bruising — Biggart suggests slowly building up your strength until you feel comfortable trying more dynamic and explosive activities.
And while you can’t prevent slips and stumbles, you can do something about the other common causes of a pulled hamstring:
- Weakness: Correct any imbalances between your quads and hamstrings.
- Tightness: Always warm up at the beginning of a workout, and stretch your hamstrings (and the rest of your body) regularly.
- Poor training: Don’t forget to strengthen your hamstrings and glutes — not just your quads — when doing leg workouts.