Hamstring Muscle Injuries
The hamstring muscle group is made up of three muscles extending from the back of the thigh down to the back of the knee. These muscles are known as the biceps femoris, semitendinosus, and semimembranosus. Together they make up the hamstrings. The hamstrings, similar to any other muscle, are vulnerable to tears when put under high tension (over stretched) or stress. When muscle or tendons in the hamstrings tear, this injury is known as a muscle strain. Hamstring strains can range from mild to severe, best understood using the three grades of hamstring strain injuries.
Grade 1 hamstring strains encompasses all mild injuries to the hamstrings – most of which involve the tearing of just a few muscle fibers, pain, and swelling, but no effect on the overall function of the leg outside of perhaps some stiffness.
Grade 2 hamstring strains characterized all hamstring injuries of medium severity – this usually means a partial tear to the muscle, somewhere in the ballpark of half of the muscle fibers are torn. Grade 2 strains are often associated with sharp pain, inflammation, bruising, and partial loss of function.
Grade 3 hamstring tears are severe. Grade 3 tears are injuries in which most of the muscle fibers in the hamstrings tear. Grade 3 Hamstrings are seriously painful, with large amounts of swelling and a near-complete loss of function. Tendons are likely to be injured in Grade 3 hamstring tears. This grade of strain almost always requires surgery.
Causes and Symptoms
Like most muscle strains, hamstring strains occur when the muscle fibers of the hamstring are hyperextended or repeatedly put under extreme tension inducing a tear. This kind of tearing can happen all at once in a sports injury, automobile accident, overtime through improper form in exercise, or a muscular imbalance. One of the most common causes of hamstring strain is sports injuries. Participation in sports can increase your risk of hamstring injury substantially. Another common cause of hamstring injury is prior hamstring strain – once the muscle tears, it will weaken and develop scar tissue for a while until it fully recovers. If patients try to return to normal activities and exercise too quickly after a strain, reinjury is likely to occur. Lack of flexibility in the hamstring muscles can also increase your risk of an injury. Stiff inflexible muscles are more likely to be torn as they're not conditioned to withstand rigorous stretching regimes as other muscles.
The symptoms of hamstring injury vary based on its severity - most patients report experiencing sharp pain in the back of the leg, sometimes accompanied by a popping or snapping sound, swelling, and occasionally bruising or loss of strength/functionality in the leg. If you're experiencing severe pain, inflammation, loss of sensation in your lower leg, or unable to move your leg normally, you may be experiencing a grade 2 strain or higher. You should seek medical attention as soon as possible if experiencing grade 2 or 3 symptoms.
Preventing hamstring strains is about risk management, fitness, and training for proper form. While hamstring strains can affect anyone, most hamstring strains occur during intense physical activity – particularly in sports that involve quick stopping and starting, hard sprints, or excessive flexing of joints like in dancing. One of the most crucial aspects of muscle strain prevention is properly stretching and warming up before strenuous physical activity. In a resting state, muscles remain tense, stiff, and cold, meaning that muscles are less flexible and prone to injury. After a proper stretch and warm-up, muscles not only become warmer but are slowly extended, readying them for a dynamic workout. Finally, some hamstring injuries occur due to a muscle imbalance. When the hamstring opposing muscle - the quadriceps - becomes too strong, it can put more stress on the hamstrings and increase the risk of a hamstring injury. It can not be stressed enough how important it is to train all of your muscles equally.
There are several potential complications associated with the muscle recovery process from hamstring strain injuries. First is an increased risk of reinjury after every hamstring strain, especially if the muscle is not given ample time to recover before returning to normal activities and exercise. Due to the way our bodies heal, scar tissue is always present when a muscle tear occurs, and the muscle will require a specific regimen of stretching exercises and rehabilitation to make a full recovery. Another potential complication comes from repeated or untreated hamstring strains, potentially resulting in arthritis in the knee. Similarly, after some severe injuries, if the steps to recovery aren't strictly followed, the tendon which connects the hamstring to the bone can become inflamed and experience long-term tendonitis.
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