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Injury to the hamstrings, which usually occurs in the form of a strain, is both common and painful, and has been known to ruin the season or career of many a world-class athlete. It’s not uncommon to see an athlete to pull up in pain and clutch the back of their thigh during an major sprint final or on the football pitch, as they’ve felt the tell-tale ‘pop’ in their hamstring.
Athletes in all sports, but particularly those in power events such as sprinting and sports such as football and basketball, are at particular risk of hamstring injury. Some precautions can be taken against a pulled hamstring, particularly those that are caused by weak gluteal muscles or inadequate quad-to-hamstring strength ratios, but unfortunately some individuals are more susceptible to injuring this muscle than others. Wearing compression shorts can help in both the prevention and treatment of hamstring injuries.
The hamstrings are actually a group of three muscles in the back of the thigh which work together to flex (bend) the knee. The muscle becomes strained when it gets stretched too far, something which is common when an athlete is trying to get the most out of their stride length or a footballer makes a sudden effort to chase a ball down the field. Indeed, any activity that involves a lot of jumping and running or sudden start-stop movements is likely to place the hamstrings under pressure and at risk of hamstring injury.
Hamstring injury is more common if your quadriceps (the muscles at the front of your thigh) are considerably stronger than your hamstrings, you didn’t warm up or stretch before the activity, you’re a teenager experiencing a growth spurt and your muscle strength isn’t keeping pace with the growth of your bones, or your gluts are weak or not engaging properly and your hamstrings are compensating.
While mild hamstring strains don’t hurt that much, severe ones can be excruciatingly painful and can make standing or walking impossible. Pain normally comes on suddenly during exercise and is often accompanied by a popping or snapping feeling. Bruising, tenderness and pain in the back of the thigh and lower buttocks when straightening the leg, walking or bending over are other tell-tale signs of a hamstring strain.
Minor hamstring strains often heal on their own, given time. Application of the RICE protocol (rest, ice, compression and elevation) will speed up the healing process. Anti-inflammatory painkillers may help with swelling and pain, but should only be used on the advice of a doctor and as a short-term treatment for pain. The doctor or physiotherapist will prescribe strengthening and stretching exercises to help injured people return to full health and to prevent future injury to the area. The most severe cases of hamstring tears may need surgery.
In summary, hamstring injury, which generally occurs in the form of an acute muscle strain, can be both painful and debilitating. Minor injuries can heal quickly with the application of the RICE protocol and the wearing of compression shorts, but more severe cases may need surgery and specialist treatment.