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Why you can’t rush recovery on a hamstring strain

Picture the scene. One minute you are running, minding your own business, perhaps listening to music. You suddenly feel a stabbing sensation in the back of your thigh, there may even have been a popping noise. Now you are hobbling to a standstill, possibly unable to walk.

If this scenario has happened to you, then it is more than likely that you have torn one of the muscles in the back of your thigh, your ‘hamstring’. Successfully recovering from a hamstring strain will take a lot of time and care. Rush back to your chosen sporting activity too soon and you risk a repeat injury. That second injury could be more serious and take even longer to recover from.

Hamstring injuries take time to recover fully!

Because of the damage, the other muscles are now working harder and they too need to be protected from overuse and damage. The limited range of movement, induced by your body’s recovery system, needs to be slowly increased. The damaged muscle needs to be given time to repair, time to regain a full range of movement and then time to gain strength again. There is a common theme here – time! Many people make the mistake of getting past the initial recovery period, and then going back to the same activities that caused the original damage. It does not end well.

Just because the pain has gone, doesn’t mean your hamstring has fully recovered!

As soon as the tear occurred, your body went into protection mode, inducing swelling, inflicting pain and encouraging you not to use the damaged muscle. Your body wants you to stop and rest. Depending on the severity of the tear, the initial recovery to pain free walking, may only take a few days. This diminishing of pain is simply a sign of an initial recovery, enough to reduce swelling and perhaps associated bruising. The pain may have reduced and mobility may be returning, but:

  • Your damaged muscle is still damaged
  • Your range of movement is almost certainly still restricted
  • Your hamstring muscles will be nowhere near the level of strength it had prior to the injury
  • Other muscles have had to do extra work to support and protect, so may be injury prone

The initial recovery, typically in the first few days or weeks, is a huge danger zone. You feel so much better and desperately want to get back to doing whatever you were doing before the injury. Unfortunately, the risk of a recurrence of a hamstring injury is very high, and second time around, the injury can be worse.

How likely is a recurring hamstring injury?

The NHS don’t quantify the exact chances of a recurring injury, simply stating “Recurring injury is common” and “you’re more likely to injure your hamstring if you’ve injured it before.” An article in the International Journal of Sports Physical Therapy, suggests a recurrence rate of nearly a third. Other academic studies report even higher percentages.
Closer to home, Michael Owen, the Liverpool and England football player, blames the early end to his career coming, in part, on recurring hamstring related injuries.

A recurrence of a hamstring strain can cause a bigger problem, with extended recovery times and the risk of permanent damage. You should be aiming for a stronger muscle group and an increased range of movement, before you think about retrying whatever it was you did in the first place! It is not uncommon for a severe hamstring injury to take a year to eighteen months to recover. In our experience, the more common smaller hamstring strain takes around 3 to 5 months to recover.

The long road to recovery

Why does it take so long to recover? It is simply the time needed not only to repair the original tear, but to regain the range of movement and strength in the hamstring and surrounding muscle groups. These muscles are constantly in use, being subjected to the stress and strain of everyday activities. Your body is trying to heal an injury that is under constant attack. Two steps forward, one step back.

Partial healing can happen relatively quickly, but complete recovery takes longer. An article in the British Journal of Sports Medicine suggests that athletes in a rehabilitation programme with agility/stabilisation exercises rather than strength/stretching exercises had a nearly 70% lower risk of re-injury. If you start aggressive stretching exercises too soon, you can create more damage. One step forward, two steps back. It’s the same with increasing your range of movement. Too soon, or too aggressively and you impair the healing process. Ditto for strengthening exercises.

hamstring rehabilitation statistic

Why tailored physical therapy can help reduce recovery times

Each person and each hamstring injury is unique. Understanding the severity of an injury, the exact area of damage and what caused the injury is the start to putting in place a bespoke treatment and exercise plan.

It is important to take into account the range of movement and strength you had before the injury. Hamstring injuries recur as much from the wrong application of stretching and strengthening exercises, as they do from returning to sport too soon. A professional osteopath or physiotherapist can help assess you, your injury, and your goals, and then put in place a plan that’s right for you.

Recovery takes a long time and recurring hamstring injury is unfortunately very common. We wish you good luck in your rehabilitation and a swift return to your chosen sporting activities. Just not too swift!

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