“What’s he got?” the coach shouts with frustration as I approached with my exam findings of the injured football player.
Before I could even start with my reply, he barked back with double the volume and triple the disgust; “It’s a damn hammy, isn’t it?!”
That conversation, if you want to call it one, took place more often than I want to admit over the past 20 years as Head Athletic Trainer/Physical Therapist with the Jacksonville Jaguars. Strained hamstrings have a way of adding to the stress level of everyone as the player, the coaches and the athletic trainers continue to search for the mystery cause and illusive solution.
Training Camp Strained Hamstrings
This year’s NFL Training Camps are producing more pulled hamstrings than anyone expected. Reading over the NFL injury reports this weekend, only a week into a long season, it’s hard to find any teams without at least a couple of players not practicing because of a strained hamstrings.
What the Hell are the Hamstrings?
That’s not a typo. It’s supposed to be plural because there are three (3) muscles that make up the hamstrings located on the backside of the thigh. All three muscles originate on the lower back of the pelvis and extend below the knee behind the upper calf muscle. Two of those hamstring muscles pass the knee on the inner or medial side while the third “hammy” inserts on the outer or lateral upper shin above the lateral calf muscle belly.
Simplifying the Function of the Hammies:
(in order of their importance for a football player)
- Decelerate or slow down the extension (straightening) motion of the knee while running.
- Assist in extending the hip.
- Bending the knee.
- Assist in rotating the shin in relationship with the femur or thigh bone while changing direction.
Strain (medical) = Tweak (optimistic player) = Pull (pessimistic player) = Tear (bar guy)
They all simply mean that some of the muscle fibers within any of the three hamstring muscles has been torn. More fibers torn means more bleeding, more pain, more weakness, more loss of function and more downtime.
Factors Contributing to NFL Hamstring Strains
- Fatigue – Weaker muscles are vulnerable muscles. Have you noticed most NFL players with hamstring strains are the players in the skilled, speed positions? The wide receivers, defensive backs and running backs typically head the list of positions who suffer most of the pulled hamstrings. They are running and changing directions fast on every play. When their muscles fatigue the important role of the hamstring is magnified, increasing the potential for fiber failure.
- Dehydration – Muscle dehydration is grossly overlooked in relationship with muscle strains. Simply stated; a dehydrated muscle becomes less effective when forced to contract and relax quickly. During high speeds and/or high volume activities the “drying up” of a muscle can quickly lead to a strain.
- Muscle Imbalance – Strong muscles tend to be tight muscles. Weak muscles tend to be longer muscles. When the strong or primary muscles, such as the hamstrings, are doing most of the work the less important muscles, such as the hip rotators or lower Abs, often become too weak. This imbalance, much like a shimmy in your car, becomes worse high speeds.
- Poor Warm-up – Sweating on the outside doesn’t mean your muscles on the inside are prepared to contract/relax at full throttle. A player who’s been standing around for 10 minute and is suddenly thrown in for a special teams play or a high-intensity drills is immediately at risk for a hamstring injury.
- Body Compensation – NFL players move very fast. When the work load on hamstrings is high, other muscle such as the calves, groin and “glutes” (butt muscle) need to help more. When other muscles above or below the hammies don’t do their job, the long hamstring muscles pay the price.
Strained hamstrings will tests the patience of the player, the athletic trainer and the coach. Addressing these factors starting on Day #1 can help keep the players on the field and to help you avoid being the bearer of bad news.