Things My Doctor Never Told Me: Hamstrings

 My Hamstrings

I have tight hamstrings. I have had tight hamstrings for this entire millennium, so 20+ years. Why do I have tight hamstrings? I have had sedentary jobs and I live a sedentary life. 
Hamstring Muscles by Harold Gibbons
I honestly just thought something was wrong with me as I aged out of my 20s into my 30s. I thought these tight hamstrings were an indication that something was wrong with my legs and I was doing something wrong. 

Car Accident 2001

In 2001 I was hit by an 18 wheeler tractor trailer while driving on I-78 in the Lehigh Valley Pennsylvania. I was on the side of the mountain, and thank God in that particular stretch of the road they were doing some road construction, which meant there were guardrails, otherwise when my car went into a spin it would've spun off the side of the mountain. Yeah, that happened and still does frequently on that stretch of the road. Heck my accident was so commonplace it didn't make the news because I wasn't maimed or killed.
Me & My Mazda Protégé 1999
My car was totaled, and though I didn't have any broken bones I had extensive soft tissue injuries, major whiplash, and was diagnosed with PTSD. You get hit by a truck on the interstate and tell me you don't get PTSD. It was horrible. I lived alone, I worked in NJ and had to drive an hour each way daily to get to work. The last thing I wanted to do after the accident was get in a car and drive.

Physical Therapy

Physical Therapy was really tough. Simple things that were easy to do were hard. One of the things I learned during physical therapy was that my hamstrings were wound really tight (not the scientific definition, but you get my drift). They had a really inexperienced person working with me and she pulled my leg back too far too fast. I screamed in agony. I was in a ton of pain for almost two weeks and was walking funny.

When I returned to physical therapy the next session they had assigned someone else to me. No one spoke to me about what she had done. They didn't discuss the extra damage she did to my leg. Didn't explain what I should be doing to get it healed, just went on like nothing had happened.

I was dealing with trauma on top of trauma and didn't press the issue. I had no one to advocate for me and was dealing with the effects of PTSD. Plus my job was hassling me about coming back to work. The lawyer I hired wasn't very good and was more focused on getting a few thousand bucks in their pockets than helping me get a settlement that would cover my medical expenses. In the end I settled for a very low amount to push things into the past, even though at that time my job had fired me. I worked for a major insurance company at the time - one of the top for property and casualty insurance. Heck they insured the rich for kidnap & ransom insurance and wouldn't make a reasonable accommodation. 

From 2001 to 2008 I suffered with daily headaches and pain in my hip. It wasn't until I got a job at a major pharmaceutical company that their in house physical therapist was able to help me with the whiplash and finally the headaches stopped and eventually the pain in my hip went away.

Tight Hamstrings

The past seven to eight years I have been managing an illness, one that resulted in me losing that plum pharmaceutical job, another company that refused to make a reasonable accommodation. And again, because I had no one to advocate for me it was easier for me to leave and try to manage my illness on my own than to drag something out in court, make it very public, and still lose because I don't have the deep pockets to fight a 100+ year old multi-billionaire company whose mistreatment led to major illness and the inability to work.

So, while home recuperating and shifting my focus to work I can do at home that will allow me to take time off as needed when I wasn't well, I noticed that my hamstrings were becoming almost as tight as they were when I was in the car accident in 2001. If it wasn't for one of my cats who constantly makes me bend down and touch my toes, yes, he actually does that, my legs muscles wouldn't be getting much exercise. 

My cat Milo, walks me daily around the house and makes me bend down to pet him and I get bonus points if I touch my toes while I am down there.
Milo Watching Me
If I am sitting or rather lying in bed for too long on a given day, Milo will pester to me to get up, walk around the house and touch my toes. I know he does it on purpose because he taught himself a trick. He will sometimes stand on his hind legs to meet my hand as I bend down to pet him. I also know he was intentionally exercising me, because when I started doing some yoga or stretching he wouldn't walk me through the house as much that day. Instead he would sit nearby and watch me to make sure I was stretching those hamstrings.

What I Learned

I kept trying to figure out why my hamstrings were so tight; what biologically predisposes me to tight hamstrings. What I learned enlightened me. I learned that it is not that one muscle, but rather a group of muscles that results in the tightness I was experiencing. And that the pain and problems are a result of sitting too long.
Hip & Thigh Muscles
So what was happening was the muscles were constricting and not elongating. Once I had the understanding as to what was happening and why it was happening, I now am equipped with the knowledge to fix what is wrong with my legs. I need to stand more, which isn't that difficult because my desk is set up so that I can work standing at it.

I need to walk, bend, twist, jump, stoop, squat, lunge, dance, and cycle more - do things that we did as children, teens, and young adults to move those muscles and joints in all the natural ways they are intended to move. You know this is simple. The solution is so simple and straightforward so why didn't any of my doctors explain that simple concept to me? I saw family doctors, physiatrists, chiropractors, orthopedic specialists, physical therapists, sports massage therapists - none, NONE, none of them explained to me what was happening with my muscles and what I needed to do to stretch out tight muscles and maintain proper health.

Yes, my physical therapists gave me exercises and told me if I didn't do them scar tissue would develop blah blah blah. BUT NONE of them explained to me the muscle group in my thighs that were injured during the car accident and was not helped by long hours driving to work five days a week and sitting at a desk for eight to ten hours five days a week, how all of that was not healthy for my legs. Showing me what was happening with my legs and giving me simple things to do to maintain the health, elasticity, and flexibility of my legs after they healed/recovered from the car accident would of been beneficial and prevented 20 years of pain and mental anguish.

Hamstring Stretches to Relieve Tightness

There are many exercises you can do to relieve the tightness in your hamstrings and prevent it from reoccurring. 
Toe Touch Hamstring Exercise
Rotating Toe Touch by McKenzie Cordell
First, breath, and then repeat this mantra - I think I can, I know I can, I will. Repeat it over and over a few times as you breath in and out deeply. Did you do that? Are you feeling calmer? Good.

Next, forgive yourself. Sometimes we are so hard on ourselves for failing to do the things we know we should do that we don't take the time to acknowledge our humanity, celebrate that we have the presence of mind to do the right or rather better thing and then forgive ourselves. Even if we fall into that old habit pattern again, forgive yourself. That positive mindset about yourself is what is going to propel you forward into remapping your mind/thought processes and forming new habits. Remember it took time to form a bad habit, it will take time to replace it with a healthy body, mind, and soul nourishing habit.

Check out these resources for exercises that can help with getting your hamstrings and related muscles up to snuff:
Consider purchasing the following tools to help you maintain good hamstring and leg muscle health:
  • Resistance bands. I prefer the bands by Gaiam. I personally own these and have used them for decades. They come with different levels of resistance. You can try the Restore Strength & Flexibility bands by Gaiam or a comparable brand. 
  • Yoga block and strap. The Yoga strap helps you safely do and hold a yoga pose and the block assists you with stretching if your flexibility isn't quite there yet. I personally own a similar set to the Gaiam Block & Strap Combo.
  • Three bar leg stretcher. If you don't have a stretch partner this tool comes in handy with helping you to go deeper with your stretches. I own the Dominity stretcher, but there are many different brands on the market. 

Talk to Your Doctor

Finally, if you have injured your leg(s), please speak with a health care professional before starting any exercise routine. You don't want to begin an activity and cause further injury.

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