I am sure most of you have, at one time or another experienced achy hamstrings. Hamstring trigger points elicit a very annoying, dull, achy pain, often in the gluteal region, down the back of your thigh, and my all time favorite, the back of the knee.
Hamstring trigger points are often exacerbated with walking, rising out of a chair, or sitting. The pain can also make sleeping difficult.
Some common causes of hamstring trigger points are weak gluteus maximus muscles, compression of the muscle at the front edge of a chair, lying in bed or sitting for long periods with knees bent, riding a bike with the seat too low, and swimming the front crawl.
If your gluteal muscles are weak, the hamstring become taxed, as they have to work harder than usual to help extend your thigh (normally a job done primarily by the gluteus maximus, and aided by hamstrings and adductor magnus, which is an inner thigh muscle. This is a good reason to keep your gluteals nice and strong –not to mention a perky butt!
Compression and lack of oxygen to the hamstrings is a very common side effect of prolonged sitting, especially in a chair with a hard, squared off front edge. Solid wood kitchen chairs with no padding are a prime example. This affects shorter people more (and children), because their feet cannot touch the floor, so the entire weight of their legs is pushing into the front of the chair.
Patio furniture is another common culprit in compressing the hamstrings, even in taller folks. Patio chairs made with a metal frame, covered with soft fabric or plastic lining will sag when you sit in them, causing your hamstrings to be squished by the metal frame.
Using a footrest to take the pressure off your hamstrings will help – you can use a phone book, pillow, rolled up towel, whatever works! It is a good idea to use booster seats for small children on hard kitchen chairs, so that they can sit in the booster with their feet on the seat of the chair for support.
Keeping your hamstrings in a shortened position for prolonged periods can also flair trigger points. Lying in bed sick for a few days, curled up in fetal position is a sure fire way to experience hamstring pain. Long car and airplane trips are hard on the hamstrings also, so try to get up and move around as frequently as possible in situations like this.
With spring just around the corner, we will all be hauling our bikes out of the garage. Please check to be sure that your seat is high enough. I often see people cycling down the road and want to roll my window down and tell them to raise their seat. When sitting on your bike, your leg should be almost but not quite straight when bottom pedal is at 6:00 and the top pedal is at 12:00. You need a slight bend in the knee, just to reiterate.
Tight hamstrings can also lead to low back pain. Because the hamstrings attach to the ischeal tuberosities (sit bones), at he back of the pelvis, they can pull the pelvis backward, causing the lumbar spine (low back) to be stretched and flatten the natural curve of the low back. In order to maintain balance, your head moves forward. Other muscles are then activated to maintain this posture, such as the quadratus lumborum muscles in the low back, lumbar spine erector muscles, and even the abdominals. These muscles in turn become overworked and develop trigger points. Guess where they refer? Yup, the low back.
This is one reason why I often also work hamstrings when someone comes in complaining of low back pain. If you focus only on the low back muscles, the pain may ease temporarily, but unless you relax the pull on the pelvis, those low back muscles will just tighten up again.
The bathtub is a great place to stretch your hamstrings. The warmth of the water will ease tension, and relax you in preparation. Sitting in the tub with your legs out in front of you, flex your feet and lean your upper body forward over your legs, just until you feel a gentle sensation in the back of your legs. Hold there, breathing, letting gravity take you slowly further into the stretch. When you no longer feel the stretch, come back up for a second and then repeat. Remember to keep your stretching gentle. No pain no gain is not a motto for proper stretching!
Another great way to stretch your hamstrings is lying on your back, with affected leg stretched up (you can use a strap or belt to help, as shown in the picture, or hold your leg at calf or ankle with your hands). The goal is to straighten and lengthen your leg, relax, breath, and take your time.
If someone you know is feeling pain in the hamstring area, please share this article with them. Their problem could be resolved with nothing more than a footrest or a higher bike seat!