Tight Hammies and Your Back

Stand up. Bend forward and touch your toes. Don’t bend your knees. Can’t do it? You’ve probably got tight hamstrings.

Studies show that people with tight hamstrings are more prone to having low back and hip pain. Why is this?

Your hamstrings are muscles on the back of your thighs that attach to your hip bones right at your butt, on the butt bone that you sit on, and to your legs near the knee. Hamstrings bend your knee and move your leg backwards. They’re involved mostly with leg movements, but if they are dysfunctional, they can cause low back pain.

Often times when your hamstrings are tight, then your hip flexors (on the front of your thighs–quads, iliopsoas) are weak. These muscles straighten your knee and bring your leg up. More importantly, they help you go up stairs and lift heavy things (if you’re lifting correctly with your legs).

As a chiropractor, what I’m looking for is what tight hamstrings do to bones and joints. Because the hamstrings attach to the hip bones, if they are tight, they can pull the bone backward, rolling the hip into a poor position–or they can keep the joint from moving in a certain direction, jamming it up and forcing your body to compensate. When one side is tighter than the other, it then creates an asymmetry between the two sides, further complicating the issue. I can adjust that joint all I want, but if my patient doesn’t change what is causing that tight muscle, the muscle is just going to keep jamming up that joint, keeping it from functioning in the right position.

Tight hamstrings can have a few causes:

  • Seated positions for long periods of time, as in having a desk job. If you work a desk job you should give yourself periodic breaks, at least once an hour, to get up, do some lunges, body weight squats, and light stretching. I have recommended to some of my patients to try a free computer program called Workrave–it allows you to manage breaks and avoid sitting for too long. Or if you really want to be new age, create yourself a standing desk. This page gives a good overview about standing desks, what’s on the market, how to experiment with them, etc.
  • Too much of an anterior pelvic tilt. This puts the hamstrings in a stretched position, and they’re constantly “on” or activated in order to prevent injury. This is seen often in younger females that have training in gymnastics and dancing, as anterior pelvic tilts are involved in movements and poses. The remedy is not necessarily to stretch the hamstrings, but rather to adjust the pelvis, and perform posterior pelvic tilt exercises and hip flexor stretches. This eases up the pulling pressure on those hamstrings, allowing them to relax, and therefore not be tight anymore.
  • Previous hamstring strains–either acute or chronic. Meaning you’ve injured or pulled a hamstring before and never rehabbed it correctly. The muscle will repair itself with a tough scar-like substance called collagen. If the injury was not rehabbed correctly with stretches and exercises, that collagen will be laid down haphazardly instead of orderly. That will restrict your leg motion, and may cause your hamstrings to feel tight, and possibly cause low back pain.
  • Sedentary lifestyles–this is not specific to hamstring tightness, everything gets tight when you do not move your body regularly. Because your spine is at the center of your body, it often suffers the most when muscles get tight. As the core of your body, it must negotiate movements and compensate for poor motor patterns. The best thing to do is to get up and move regularly–yoga, or even any kind of stretching/movement regimen for ten to fifteen minutes daily will help keep your spine, hamstrings, and rest of your body pain-free.

The best way to stretch hamstrings is to use active, or dynamic, stretches–meaning bending forward and touching your toes isn’t always the best way to stretch. Lie on your back with your legs out straight. Bend your thigh up toward your head and keep your knee slightly bent. When you’ve brought your thigh up as far as it will go, begin to slowly straighten out your knee. Feel that stretch behind your thigh? This is an active stretch. To feel a deeper stretch, loop a towel or Theraband around the arch of your foot and when you begin to straighten your knee, pull on the towel to assist in the straightening of your knee.

Questions? You know the drill–shoot me an e-mail or comment below.

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