If your hamstrings are tight, you should stretch them, right?
While the answer may seem obvious, stretching your muscles may not always be the best approach to alleviating your problem, whether it’s limited range of motion, pain or impaired athletic performance.
As a physical therapist, I run into this apparent conundrum often. Take my client Mark, for example.
One patient’s story
Mark was a former patient of mine whose story I see quite frequently in my clinic. An avid runner, he had been struggling for weeks with what he assumed were tight hamstrings. He came to me for help after his daily hamstring stretches seemed only to make his pain and running difficulties worse.
During our initial examination, we discovered some interesting things about Mark’s problems:
• When I tested the range of motion in his hips and knees, everything was actually within normal limits.
• Further testing revealed that we could make Mark’s pain better or worse simply by moving his spine and pelvis in certain directions.
• He explained that sometimes his pain radiates up into his groin and butt or down into his lower leg.
All of these important clues quickly led me to conclude that Mark’s problems weren’t actually due to tight hamstrings at all, but rather an issue originating in his lower back. No wonder his hamstring stretches weren’t helping.
Fortunately, we now had a clearer picture of what was causing his symptoms and could develop an appropriate treatment plan that would provide relief and prevent his symptoms from returning.
If Mark hadn’t taken the important step of coming to see me, he probably would have continued doing his stretches in the hopes that eventually his symptoms would improve.
Mark, like many people, simply assumed he knew what was causing his pain and dysfunction. I don’t say this to pick on him, of course, and I always want my patients to feel empowered when it comes to their health.
But the problem with making these kinds of assumptions and self-diagnosing an injury is that you may seek out “solutions” (like stretching) that won’t adequately address the true cause of your problem. Not only can this delay proper care and healing, but also, in some cases, can make your condition even worse.
Hamstrings – like other muscles – can certainly get tight. In these cases, stretching should help. But as I tell my patients, muscle tightness rarely occurs on its own. There are likely multiple factors contributing to those sore, achy, tight hamstrings.
What causes tight hamstrings can vary from person to person, but common culprits include repetitive movement, excessive sitting, muscle length and strength imbalances, and poor posture or body mechanics. A physical therapist can help you tease out and identify all of your contributing factors, then create an individualized plan to address them. Otherwise, even the most perfectly performed hamstring stretches might not be enough to help you feel better, because all of the other issues contributing to your symptoms will keep rearing their ugly heads.
Here’s my bottom line: I encourage everyone to perform some basic self-care, including daily physical activity and mobility routines. For optimal health, physical performance and injury prevention, we want our joints to be able to move through their full range of motion with adequate muscle control, flexibility and strength.
But if and when pain or dysfunction arises, take this as a cue from your body to consult with a professional. Even if tight hamstrings are a source of your pain, there could be other things going on that you’re not aware of – things that can’t simply be stretched away.
Plus, working with a physical therapist is a great way to ensure the stretches you perform are done correctly and are appropriate for your needs and goals. Your PT also can provide manual techniques, modalities and exercise prescriptions that will enhance the overall effect of your stretches so that you get the most out of your routine moving forward. Talk about a win-win!
As for Mark, he was relieved to learn the true issues causing his painful symptoms so that he could get started on his healing and get back to his runs. Now, his mobility routine includes core strengthening and stabilizing exercises in addition to a more customized warm-up.
Are you currently sidelined by an unusual ache or pain? Contact our team at PhysioFit to learn about how we can help you discover an effective solution.
Kim Gladfelter is owner, physical therapist and Pilates instructor at PhysioFit Physical Therapy & Wellness, 1000 Fremont Ave., Suite 108, Los Altos. For more information, call 887-6046 or visit physiofitpt.com.