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Understanding Hip Flexor Strain

What are your hip flexors?

Lifting your knee toward your body takes the work of many muscles, which are collectively known as your hip flexors. The hip flexor muscles include:

  • the iliacus and psoas major muscles, also known as your iliopsoas
  • the rectus femoris, which is part of your quadriceps

These muscles and the tendons that connect them to your bones can easily be strained if you overuse them.

The main work of your hip flexors is to bring your knee toward your chest and to bend at the waist. Symptoms associated with a hip flexor strain can range from mild to severe and can impact your mobility. If you don’t rest and seek treatment, your hip flexor strain symptoms could get worse. But there are many at-home activities and remedies that can help reduce hip flexor strain symptoms.

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Symptoms

What does hip flexor strain feel like?

Hip flexor strain’s chief symptom is pain at the front of the hip. However, there are several other symptoms associated with the condition. These include:

  • pain that seems to come on suddenly
  • increasing pain when you lift your thigh toward your chest
  • pain when stretching your hip muscles
  • muscle spasms at your hip or thigh
  • tenderness to the touch at the front of your hip
  • swelling or bruising at your hip or thigh area

You may feel this pain when running or walking.

Learn more: What causes hip pain? »

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Causes

What causes hip flexor strain?

Hip flexor strain occurs when you use your hip flexor muscles and tendons too much. As a result, the muscles and tendons become inflamed, sore, and painful. Some people are more likely than others to experience hip flexor strain. These include:

  • cyclists
  • dancers
  • martial artists
  • kickers on a football team
  • soccer players
  • step aerobics participants

Athletes who jump or run while performing high knee kicks are also at greater risk for hip flexor strain. If you do deep stretching, such as pulling your thigh backward, you’re also more likely to experience hip flexor strain.

A hip flexor strain represents a tearing in the muscles. These tears can range from mild to severe:

  • Grade I tear: a minor tear, in which only a few fibers are damaged
  • Grade II tear: a significant number of muscle fibers are damaged and you have a moderate loss of hip flexor function
  • Grade III tear: the muscle is completely ruptured or torn, and you usually can’t walk without a limp

According to the Australian Physiotherapy Association, most injuries are Grade II.

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Treatment

Hip flexor strain treatment

Rest

It’s important to rest the affected muscles if you have hip flexor strain. One thing you can do is change up your normal activities to avoid overstretching the muscle. For example, you could try swimming instead of riding a bicycle.

Home remedies

Most instances of hip flexor strain can be treated at home without the need for prescription medications or more invasive treatments. Here are some home remedies that can help relieve the pain of hip flexor strain:

1. Apply a cloth-covered ice pack to the affected area for 10- to 15-minute time increments.

Keep reading: How to make a cold compress »

2. Alternate ice packs with moist heat applications starting at about 72 hours after the initial injury. These include heat patches, moist heating pads, or a warm, wet washcloth. A hot shower can have a similar effect in reducing muscle tightness.

3. Take an over-the-counter pain reliever. Any of the following can help:

However, unless directed by your doctor, you shouldn’t take these medicines for longer than 10 days due to risks for stomach bleeding.

4. Rest and avoid activities that will overuse your hip flexors for 10 to 14 days after injury (or longer if directed by your doctor).

Exercises

Gentle stretching exercises can help reduce hip flexor muscle tension as well as reduce the likelihood for future injury. Try these hip flexor stretches, but make sure you don’t push too hard — these stretches should be gentle.

It can help to reduce the risk for hip flexor strain if you apply moist heat and warm up your muscles with a gentle walk for about three minutes before stretching.

In severe cases

If your hip flexor strain is so severe that it results in a large muscle tear, your doctor may recommend seeing a physical therapist. On occasion, surgery to repair the ruptured muscle may be recommended. However, this is a very rare occurrence.

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Outlook

What is the outlook for hip flexor strain?

How long it takes a hip flexor strain to heal depends on how severe the injury is. A mild strain can take a few weeks to heal. But a severe strain can take six weeks or more to heal, according to Summit Medical Group. Failing to rest and recover a hip flexor strain usually only results in a worse injury and greater pain at a later time.

If your hip flexor strain is causing you to limp or your symptoms do not improve after at-home treatments for seven days, call your doctor.

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