Tightness in leg muscles or inadequate stretching can lead to problems in your back or hips such as Piriformis Syndrome and Sciatic Nerve Pain, or simply cause muscle spasms like a Charley Horse. Knowing the anatomy of the lower body and practicing proper extremity stretches is vital to preventing injury as well as alleviating pain or cramping.
Know Your Muscles!
- Gluteals ~ The gluteal muscles primarily cover your buttocks and consist of three muscles known as Gluteus Maximus, Gluteus Medius, and Gluteus Minimus. The Gluteus Maximus is arguably the largest, most powerful muscle of your backside and facilitates hip extension. Gluteus Medius, or your upper glutes, helps with abduction and hip rotation. The smallest of the three, GluteusMinimus is directly located beneath the Gluteus Medius and assists the upper glutes to perform abduction. The Gluteus Minimusalso plays a role in the medial rotation of the thigh, or when you move your leg towards the center of your body.
- Hip Flexors ~ Located in front of the pelvis, these muscles help you lift your legs. For example: when you can’t reach something up high and need a stepping stool, your Hip Flexors work to raise your legs when you step up. Or, when lying on your back, your Hip Flexors assist you in elevating your legs or your torso, when bringing your body to a seated position. *Tip: Most problems with Hip Flexors stem from a lack of flexibility, rather than insufficient strength. Sitting for hours at your desk puts your Hip Flexors in a constant tensed state and shortens them, which can limit your flexibility and the ability to fully extend your hips.
- Piriformis Muscle ~ This tiny pear-shaped muscle is commonly a pain in the butt! Sometimes referred to as the “Hip Rotator Cuff,” it’s located under the larger Gluteal Muscles and helps with abduction. This small muscle is a major source of buttocks and hip pain, especially for women perhaps because of the shape of their pelvis and from the effects of child labor; though is a source of pain for men as well. A tight Piriformis Muscle can compress your Sciatic Nerve and cause symptoms associated with nerve pain like numbness or tingling in your legs, known as Piriformis Syndrome.
- Quadriceps Femoris ~ The Quadriceps Femoris is a four-headed muscle that covers your thigh and helps extend the leg from a bent position. It also plays a crucial role in stabilizing your knee joint when walking, running, or jumping!
- Hamstrings ~ There are three Hamstring Muscles located underneath your glutes that attach to your pelvis and extend down the back of your legs. They work together to facilitate flexing at the knee and with hip extension. Some extremity stretches involve pulling your heel towards your buttocks; these muscles help complete this movement.
- Calves ~ Your calves consist of two muscles, the Gastrocnemius and the Soleus, and they work together to assist you when extending the foot at the ankle.
- Plantar Fascia ~ In general, fascia is a connective tissue found interwoven throughout your body. Your Plantar Fascia is a fibrous tissue that connects your heel bone to your toes and supports the arch of your feet.
Lower Extremity Stretches!
Before you begin stretching, it’s important to prevent future injury by warming up! Good examples: jogging or a brisk walk on the treadmill for five minutes. When extending your limbs, remember to hold each stretch for 20 to 30 seconds and repeat on each side for whole-body balance. It’s a good rule of thumb to stretch it out once or twice a day, in the morning and in the evening, and to repeat each series of extremity stretches four times on each side. Though if working with a Physical Therapist (PT), it’s never a bad idea to ask if they have a tailored plan specific to your needs and condition.
- Stretching Your Glutes~ The “Pretzel Stretch” is the perfect stretch for you, if you have tight butt muscles. Sit in a chair or lie on the floor and cross one leg over the other. Your foot should rest upon the opposite knee. If sitting in a chair, gently lean forward until you feel a stretch in the buttock of the crossed leg. If lying on the ground, bring both knees towards your chest to complete the action.
- Relieving Tight Hips ~ Try the common “Kneeling Stretch” if you are experiencing tightness in your hips. If you suffer from knee pain, use a mat for this one to help cushion your joints. Kneel down and drive your hip forward while pushing the knee of the opposite leg into your mat. *Tip: Ask your PT about mobilization with a foam roller!
- Piriformis Wellness ~ The “Pigeon Pose” is often referenced for stretching out the small pear-shaped muscle; though some believe this exercise may exacerbate Piriformis symptoms. Talk to your PT about which stretches fit your needs. Another excellent stretch for this area is, “The Pretzel Stretch.” Some call it, “The Wall Hip Stretch,” as it consists of the same movements executed against a wall.
- Relaxing Your Quads ~ Quad Stretches are so simple you can even do them while standing in line waiting to pay for your afternoon latte! Stand on one leg and with your right hand pull your right leg towards your buttocks. If you need help balancing, use the back of a chair or wall for support. Remember to keep your chest upright!
- Loosening Your Hams ~ “The Doorway Stretch” is a simple and easy way to loosen your hamstrings wherever you are. It’s performed by lying on the floor with one leg flat against the wall and the other lying through the doorway. As you pull yourself towards the wall, you should feel a stretch in the back of your leg. You can also do this stretch standing if you prefer.
- Easing Tensed Calves ~ The most common stretch performed by runners is the “Wall or Curb Stretch,” which is as simple as it sounds. Either hang your heels off the edge of a curb or a step or find a wall to press against. Stand a few inches back, take one foot and press the tips of your toes against the wall while keeping your heel on the ground.
- Soothing Heal Pain ~ Plantar Fasciitis is fairly common and plagues many people with professions that require standing for long periods of time. If you are experiencing a tingling or burning sensation in the soles of your feet, try this simple exercise! Grab a chair, a frozen water bottle, or foam roller, and while seated roll your foot back and forth!
When home remedies provide little relief, perhaps it’s time to ask your physician about the benefits of a rehabilitation referral and how a PT can help you. Some facilities are evolving, staffed with Doctor’s of Physical Therapy, or PTs that have a Doctorate in their field, and can accept self-referrals. Cawley Physical Therapy and Rehabilitation is one such center ready to help you today! If you have any questions, call and speak with one of our Doctors of PT today at 570-208-2787!