A strain is when a muscle becomes overstretched and tears. This painful injury is also called a "pulled muscle."
If you have strained your hamstring, you have pulled one or more of the muscles on the back of your upper leg (thigh).
More about a Hamstring Strain
There are three levels of hamstring strains:
Grade 1 -- mild muscle strain or pull
Grade 2 -- partial muscle tear
Grade 3 -- complete muscle tear
Recovery time depends on the grade of the injury. A minor grade 1 injury can heal in a few days, while a grade 3 injury could take much longer to heal or need surgery.
What to Expect
You can expect swelling, tenderness, and pain after a hamstring strain. Walking may be painful.
To help your hamstring muscle heal, you may need:
A knee splint for a short period of time
Crutches, if you cannot put any weight on your leg
A special bandage wrapped around your thigh (compression bandage)
Symptoms, such as pain and soreness, may last:
2 - 5 days for a grade 1 injury
Up to a few weeks or a month for grade 2 or 3 injuries.
If the injury is very close to the buttock or knee or there is a lot of bruising:
This may mean the hamstring was pulled off the bone.
You will likely be referred to a sports medicine or bone (orthopedic) doctor.
Follow these steps for the first few days or weeks after your injury:
Rest -- halt any physical activity that causes pain. Keep your leg as still as possible. You may need crutches when you have to move.
Ice -- put ice on your hamstring for about 20 minutes, 2 - 3 times a day. Do not apply ice directly to your skin.
Compression -- a compression bandage or wrap can reduce swelling and ease pain.
Elevation -- when sitting, keep your leg raised slightly to reduce swelling.
For pain, you can use ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin), naproxen (Aleve, Naprosyn), or acetaminophen (Tylenol). You can buy these pain medicines at the store.
Talk with your health care provider before using these medicines if you have heart disease, high blood pressure, kidney disease, or have had stomach ulcers or internal bleeding in the past.
Do not take more than the amount recommended on the bottle or by your health care provider.
Getting Active Again
When your pain has decreased enough, you can begin light stretching and light physical activity. Make sure you health care provider knows.
Slowly increase your physical activity, such as walking. Follow the exercises your doctor gave you. As your hamstring heals and gets stronger, you can add more stretches and exercises.
Take care not to push yourself too hard or too fast. A hamstring strain can recur, or your hamstring may tear.
Talk to your doctor before returning to work or any physical activity. Returning to normal activity too early can cause re-injury.
Follow up with your doctor 1 - 2 weeks after your injury. Based on your injury, your doctor may want to see you more than once during the healing process.
When to Call the Doctor
Call your doctor if:
You have sudden numbness or tingling
You notice a sudden increase in pain or swelling
Your injury does not seem to be healing as expected
Ali K, Leland JM. Hamstring strains and tears in the athlete. Clin Sports Med. 2012 Apr;31(2):263-72.
Vetter CS, Hoch AZ. Hamstrong strain. In: Frontera, WR, Silver JK, Rizzo TD Jr, eds. Essentials of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation. 2nd ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Saunders Elsevier; 2008:chap 59.
C. Benjamin Ma, MD, Assistant Professor, Chief, Sports Medicine and Shoulder Service, UCSF Department of Orthopaedic Surgery. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, A.D.A.M. Health Solutions, Ebix, Inc.