This season, hamstring injuries have benched at least four members of the New York Mets, the team whose ups and (more numerous) downs made me care about baseball for the first time in my life. Then it got personal: my boyfriend started hobbling after one of our outdoor workouts, having suffered his own mild hamstring pull.
What is this injury, anyway? And what makes everyone from pro athletes to weekend warriors susceptible to it?
It turns out that I'm just now noticing what is a pretty constant stream of hamstring issues among athletes and active people. "It's one of the more common problems we see," says Al Green, head athletic trainer at Florida Southern College. Baseball, soccer, and football players, track and field athletes, and even water skiers are notably vulnerable because of the motions their sports entail. When someone quickly accelerates from standing still to a run, his quadriceps muscle contracts rapidly. If the hamstring can't keep up, it may be strained or torn, says Green. (Think of a baseball player hitting a ball and running down the first-base line, or the lightning-fast acceleration of a sprinter.)
The severity of the injury depends on the extent of damage to muscle fiber. It can range from tiny tears to a complete rupture. Green uses a "finger test" to judge how bad it is: The athlete lies, face down, on the table and attempts to bend his knee and flex his lower leg. If he can't do it at all, it's a severe injury. If Green can hold down the leg with two or three fingers, it's a moderately severe injury that may take a few weeks to recover from. If it takes the entire hand to hold down the leg, it's milder still; if the athlete can push through the hand resistance, it may be painful only for a few days, Green says.
The remedy: the familiar rest, ice, compression, and, initially, elevation. But don't just sit on the sofa, says Jim Wharton, an exercise physiologist and president of Wharton Performance. "We've found if nothing is broken, you should try to get some gentle movement going as the body allows," he says. That's to keep blood flowing and oxygen heading to the injury and nearby areas.
As with other injuries, prevention is the best treatment of all. But "we haven't come up with an ideal prevention plan yet," says Edward Snell, president of Major League Baseball's Team Physicians Association and a sports medicine specialist at Allegheny General Hospital in Pittsburgh. Some of the avenues being explored include strength training to build up the hamstrings, which are often neglected in favor of the quads. One example, from Wharton: Put on a light ankle weight, support yourself over a workout bench, bed, or counter top, and extend your leg backwards until it's in a straight line with your torso. Resistance training as an injury prevention tool is under study but hasn't been proven, says Snell.
Neither has static stretching (like bending over to touch your toes), which Snell nevertheless says can improve the healing time of an existing injury. The Whartons—Jim works with his son, Phil—are known for a more active form of flexibility work involving stretches held only for a second or two, while contracting the opposing muscle. (Here are illustrated instructions for one of their hamstring stretches.) A good warmup—that is, a slow start to whatever activity you're doing, until you're warm and limber—is also key to preventing injuries in general, says Green.
It also seems to be important to correct underlying problems in the rest of your body that can affect your hamstrings, says Snell. A stiff back or weak ankle, for example, might put undue strain on your hamstring as it "protects" other body parts. So listen to your body. If your hamstring or another body part is tight or sore for a few days, figure out what's wrong rather than ignoring it.