Sarah Smith, licensed athletic trainer with ThedaCare Orthopedic Care in Shawano, shows a student athlete how to use a foam roller and runner’s stick to release muscle shortness and tightness, a condition that can lead to overall body misalignment and pain.
How to Resolve Misalignment and Pain from Tight Hip Flexors
Hip flexors are a broad term for the group of muscles that connects your legs and the trunk of your body together in a flexing movement. Just as their name implies, they are the muscles that flex your hip joint. We are also learning more about the role hip flexors play in a person’s posture and overall musculoskeletal alignment, especially if one spends most of the day in a sitting position at a desk or computer.
Take a moment and look back just a generation or two ago. Our parents and grandparents spent a much higher percentage of their day in active and upright motion, whether it was working on the farm, running a printing press, or growing food in the family’s vegetable garden. Today, the nature of work (and leisure) has changed dramatically, and we no longer find ourselves outside playing football on the weekend as much as we engage with our online fantasy football team from the comfort of the couch.
Now consider these two truths: repetitive motion is capable of changing the positioning of your body over the long term; and, when a muscle contracts, it shortens. When you sit, your hips are in a persistently flexed, or shortened, state. If you spend at least a third of your day this way, you will most likely experience some kind of tightness and pain in your hip flexors.
Tightness and pain in your hips can be just the beginning of further problems, including muscle imbalances that can lead to lower back pain. When hip flexors cause a pull on the pelvis for long periods of time, they can cause anterior pelvic tilt (picture a person standing with his or her bum stuck out to the back and belly bulging forward). This posture turns off opposing muscle groups, and a vicious cycle of muscle imbalance can cause chronic and acute pain and muscle spasms in your lower back.
I am a licensed athletic trainer at Shawano Community High School and middle school, and I tend to see student athletes who are having hip flexor pain or tightness associated with their athletic pursuits. One of the great parts about my job is I can help them with their immediate concern and give them skills to live healthier, more pain-free lives as adults. Here’s what I suggest to my students and anyone who is interested in learning how to avoid or resolve hip flexor issues:
Massage your muscle’s fascia. Fascia is the connective tissue that covers muscles, and it can be damaged after a muscle has been repetitively contracted. Certain areas of your fascia can be damaged and develop trigger points, or microspasms in the muscle. Tightness of the tissues in your hip flexors can restrict motion or pull your entire body out of alignment, causing a person to favor and overuse one hip or shoulder. Myofascial release (MFR) therapy focuses on releasing muscular shortness and tightness, often with a foam roller or a runner’s stick. The goal is to stretch and loosen the fascia so that it and other connective tissue can move more freely. There are a number of foam rollers and runners sticks on the market for this purpose. The safe way to use them is to carefully use your body weight to apply pressure to the roller or roll the stick over the area of pain or tightness. You should experience some discomfort, but not outright pain. Do not roll over joints; rather, gently and slowly roll over sore or tight muscle groups and pause on the spots where there is obvious tightness. If you don’t invest in a roller or runner’s stick, try using a tennis ball or golf ball and slowly rolling it on the affected area.
Move more and get to know muscles you forgot you have. Try a new style of exercise that makes you think about your body differently. Yoga increases your awareness of a wide variety of muscle groups, and you move slowly and think about which muscles you are engaging. If you are a student athlete who tends to specialize in one sport, try yoga or a second sport that diversifies the way your body moves and your mind organizes motion.
Ask for help when something doesn’t feel right. One area of tightness or pain can cause poor posture or restricted range of motion that leads to inactivity. In the same way, a new method of therapeutic massage or mindful movement can open your body and mind to renewed health and awareness. It’s all connected, and so are we.
Sarah Smith is a licensed athletic trainer with ThedaCare Orthopedic Care in Shawano. She is a 2013 graduate of Shawano High School and graduated from UW Oshkosh in 2017 with a degree in athletic training after which she earned her Licensed Athletic Trainer certification. As a high school student, Smith shadowed Sally Egan, LAT, ThedaCare Orthopedic Care.