I recently pulled a muscle in my hamstring, which has negatively affected my flexibility. Are there safe stretches to work through a pulled muscle? —Megan
A pulled hamstring—tears that occur in the muscle when the hamstring is suddenly overstretched or overloaded—needs to be taken seriously if you want to heal properly. I didn't take enough precautions when I pulled mine years ago, and my flexibility in that leg has never felt quite the same.
“Hamstring injuries can take a long time to heal due to the potential accompanying injury to the nervous system," says Andrea Zujko, PT, DPT, OCS, COMT, clinic manager of Westside Dance Physical Therapy in New York City. Recovery time depends on the severity of the strain, and Zujko discourages self-diagnosing. “A physical therapist can help you more clearly diagnose the injury and develop a prognosis and plan to return to dance."
One thing is certain—don't stretch a pulled hamstring too soon. For the first five days (longer for serious strains), don't dance or stretch. Do use ice and compression during the first 72 hours. Then, you can gradually start gently releasing the soft tissue using a tennis ball, Zujko says, followed by range of motion exercises and pain-free stretches, including this one: Lie on your back with both knees bent, keeping a neutral spine and pelvis. Raise the injured bent leg to a tabletop position, with the angle of both your thigh and lower leg at 90 degrees. Holding on to your thigh, gently straighten and bend the leg through a pain-free range (keeping the foot relaxed and the leg parallel). Do 5 sets of 10 throughout the day when you're warm. As your hamstring heals, you can progress to a sustained, passive stretch, using a yoga belt. Hold the stretch for 30 seconds, doing 5 repetitions two to three times a day.
Isometric strengthening exercises can help, too, Zujko says. For example, sit comfortably on a chair, keeping the knees at a 90-degree angle. Using 5 to 10 percent of your strength, gently press your heel into the floor to create a light contraction in the hamstring, holding for 5 seconds; repeat 10 times.
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