Pulled Muscle or Hamstring Tear? How to Tell the Difference

Pulled Muscle or Hamstring Tear? How to Tell the Difference

Hamstring injuries are common, especially among athletes where they make up more than a third of all muscle traumas. But depending on the severity of the injury, it can be difficult to tell the difference between a pulled or strained hamstring muscle and a hamstring tear — and that can mean important treatment winds up being delayed.

Located at the back of your thigh, your hamstring muscles play a big role in all sorts of activities. Walking, climbing stairs, running, squatting, and even standing up from a sitting position all rely on your hamstring muscles, and so do dozens of other movements and activities. Not surprisingly, hamstring injuries can have a big impact on your life, especially when the injury is a more serious tear.

A leading orthopedic specialist in Houston, Texas, Joshua D. Harris, MD, is skilled in diagnosing both hamstring strains and hamstring tears and providing advanced care for both. In this post, learn how to tell the difference between these two injuries and why it matters so much for your treatment.

Quick facts about hamstring strains

Pulling or straining a hamstring happens when the muscle is stretched or strained beyond its normal limits. The muscle itself, while irritated, doesn’t tear. Pulls are associated with symptoms like:

These symptoms may occur at rest, but they tend to become more pronounced with physical activity that involves your legs. Most people with a pulled hamstring can perform most of their activities with some modifications while the muscle heals.

Lots of activities can lead to a pulled hamstring, but most commonly, these injuries are associated with rapid accelerations when running, poor warm-up prior to activity, or ramping up an activity too quickly.

Managing a pulled hamstring

Hamstring pulls typically can be treated very conservatively, focusing on relieving discomfort and swelling to promote tissue recovery. Most hamstring strains respond very well to RICE: rest, ice, compression, and elevation. 

Over-the-counter nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) can also help. As your muscle recovers, introducing gentle stretching and exercises to restore muscle strength can help. These exercises and other activities need to be initiated gradually to avoid straining the muscle again.

Quick facts about hamstring tears

Hamstring tears happen when the muscle tissue is ripped or torn. Tears can be partial, extending through a part of the muscle, or complete, where the tear extends through the entire muscle, splitting it into separate parts. Some tears rip the muscle away from the bone, sometimes taking a part of the bony attachment, too.

While a hamstring strain or pull is associated with duller pain that comes on gradually, a hamstring tear typically causes sudden, intense pain in the back of the thigh. Other symptoms include:

Pain and other symptoms intensify when weight is placed on the leg or when the leg is moved at all.

Treating hamstring tears

Hamstring tears require immediate medical care. Partial tears may heal with immobilization, rest, and physical therapy. More severe tears require surgery to repair the muscle or reattach it to the bone. Afterward, physical therapy plays a crucial role in restoring function and strength.

Even though pulls and tears cause symptoms that vary in intensity, it’s not always easy to tell these two injuries apart on your own. If you have any type of hamstring pain, it’s important to have it medically evaluated to prevent further damage and potentially permanent disability.

Find out what’s causing your symptoms

If you have pain or aching in your thigh, don’t ignore it. Call 713-441-8393 or book an appointment online with Dr. Joshua Harris today, so you can begin treatment aimed at relieving your pain and restoring normal muscle function.

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