Hip Stiffness and Pain, and Steps to Address
Garrett Curler Feb 22, 2016
Aren’t hip problems something that only the elderly have to worry about? As a matter of fact: no.
The hips surround the body’s center of gravity, and are in turn, surrounded by the quadriceps, hamstrings, and gluteal muscles or buttocks—the largest muscles in the body. These are the muscles responsible for the actions we take for granted every day, such as standing up from a seated position, sitting down from a standing position, and walking. While most of us don’t think about it much, those three actions often describe the majority of what we do physically every day in our jobs. So, of course, those big muscles that attach to and move the hips are active all day long.
Unfortunately for most of us, these muscles are often active within a very limited range of their available motion. If you’ve ever seen a gymnast, ballerina, or martial artist pivoting, spinning and dropping into the splits, you’ve seen the great versatility of movement that are hips can do. However, very few of us EVER move our hips through such extremes, let alone doing so regularly. The phrase, use it or lose it, does not just apply to muscular strength, but also flexibility, so when we don’t move our hips through their full range of motion, we gradually lose the ability to do so. We call the resulting lack of flexibility: stiffness. Stiffness develops because our muscles are always changing and growing. Yes, growth is not just something that happens when we are children. Old muscle cells or fibers die and are replaced by new ones. These new muscle cells are shorter or longer depending on what we regularly ask them to do. Similarly, the connective tissue that surrounds and interconnects our muscles—fascia—also grows in a pattern to accommodate what we do every day.
So, when many of us spend most of our time in a seated position whether because of a desk job or sedentary lifestyle; the soft tissues around our hips adjust by becoming less mobile and flexible. The seated position is particularly hard on the hips for a number of reasons. First, the hip flexors (located in the lower abdomen and along the fold of the groin), are held in a shortened position for long periods of time. Second, the low back muscles and lower spine are compressed by the upper body’s weight pressing down on them and the pressure of the chair upward through the hips and tailbone. At the same time, the gluteal muscles, hip rotators, and sciatic nerve are also compressed because the body is resting on them. Any of these situations can cause pain in the hip and low back. Unfortunately, when muscles are in pain, they respond by tensing up, which only exacerbates the stiffness.
Fortunately, we can rejuvenate the flexibility in our hips and undo stiffness. Stretching lengthens muscles and connective tissue to allow for greater movement. Exercising muscles through a wide arc of movement forces the muscle tissue to adapt and grow to new lengths.
Massage therapy that targets the gluteal muscles as well as the muscles of the thigh and low back that attach to the hips, also lengthens these tissues. Techniques for lengthening the lumbar spine and opening the hip flexors counteract compression. Massage increases relaxation of the hip musculature and reduces pain. When muscles are relaxed and pain-free, it is much easier to engage in exercise and stretching to help change the underlying tissue. Reducing stiffness is a multi-faceted approach that we begin at any age. In fact, because we replace and heal cells faster the younger we are, the earlier we establish a healthy routine for counteracting hip stiffness, the better off we will be. It is never too soon to start weaving massage therapy into your hip health regimen.
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