You’re a functioning Tin Man. Your situps are accompanied by pops, squats by cracks, and runs by odd, slightly terrifying snaps. Your body’s symphony is telling you something. But what?
At best, it’s probably harmless. At worst, it could indicate an injury that hasn’t fully blossomed to its full potential.
According to Mike Riccardi, DPT, C.S.C.S, a physical therapist at Finish Line Physical Therapy in New York City, some of the likely causes your hips are sounding off include: a hip impingement, osteoarthritis, a tear in your labrum, and/or Snapping Hip Syndrome (SHS)—the most likely reason. The first three are typically accompanied by a fair amount of pain. SHS on the other hand is usually painless unless you’re engaging in prolonged activity or you don’t rehab, in which case the irritating sound becomes an irritating pain.
“SHS can happen a few different ways. When you move, a tendon (usually the rectus femoris, tensor fascia latae, or IT band) can stretch over a bony protrusion in your pelvis or hip, then slide over and off as your joint shifts, creating a snapping sensation,” Riccardi says. “Or, it can occur when there’s looseness within your hip joint, say if you’ve torn your labrum or a piece of cartilage.”
“SHS is commonly referred to as ‘Dancer’s Hip,’ though anyone can experience it,” Riccardi says. “It’s a fairly common injury seen in runners.” Though soccer players and weightlifters can also experience the discomfort.
While experts aren’t entirely sure about its cause, it’s likely spurred by repetitive, demanding movements. Over time, heavy hip flexion can cause your hip tendons to overly thicken and lead to injury.
What you can do to prevent Snapping Hip Syndrome
“Muscle imbalances, such as tightness and weakness, as well as poor joint mobility may certainly cause SHS,” Riccardi says. “Overuse may also be a reason for it, though more indirectly.”
When you exhaust a particular muscle group (like your hip flexors), it forces other parts of your body to step in and pick up the slack. The solution? “Make sure you’re strengthening all the muscles surrounding your hip joint with proper form and technique; it’s paramount to avoiding pain and injury,” Riccardi says.
Combat overuse early on by developing an active range of motion and solid hip flexibility with the stretches below.
The best stretches to treat Snapping Hip Syndrome
For external SHS, you want to stretch your glutes and tensor fasciae latae (a hip abductor muscle known as TFL).
1. Figure-4 foot stretch: Come to the floor on your hands and knees. Take one foot and place it in front of the other knee in a figure ‘4’ position; then, sink down onto your back heel (like a one-legged child’s pose position). “This can also be done as a table stretch, which I actually like better,” Riccardi says. Find a table or bed about hip height and place one leg up on it, bending your knee to form that figure ‘4’ position. Try to get your thigh to point straight out in front of you. “Hinge forward at your hips, keeping your spine tall to feel the stretch in the back of your hip that’s elevated,” he says. Stretch for 30 seconds, hinging up and down and opening up different areas of your hips, then switch sides.
2. Standing wall hip stretch: Stand next to a wall. If it’s on your left side, place your left palm flat against the wall. Step your left leg back behind your right (almost like a curtsey). Lean your left hip toward the wall to feel a stretch along your left hip and glute muscles, making sure to keep your knees straight. Hold for 30 seconds, then switch.
For internal SHS, which is more common, you want to stretch your quads and iliopsoas (a deep hip flexor muscle in your lower abdomen and upper thigh).
1. Kneeling hip flexor stretch: Kneel down on one leg; step the other leg forward so your knee is aligned with your foot (which is flat on the floor). Tilt your pelvis back and under throughout the stretch. Lean forward, driving your weight into the front leg without arching your back, Riccardi says; “you’ll feel the stretch in your front hip.” Hold for 2-3 seconds, then gently come back. Repeat 10 times, then switch sides.
2. Kneeling quad stretch: This has nearly the same setup as the hip flexor stretch, only your back foot will be elevated off the floor. Place a towel underneath your planted knee for support. Come into the kneeling hip flexor stretch, then draw your back foot up, gently. If this is uncomfortable for you, rest the top of your foot on a couch cushion, low chair, or coffee table, then lower that knee down. Since you’re bent at the knee, pulling it up, you’ll feel the stretch more in your quads. Hold for 2-3 seconds, then gently come back. Repeat 10 times, then switch sides.
The best foam rolling and trigger point moves to alleviate Snapping Hip Syndrome
“Foam rolling is another great way to loosen up your muscles; it’s really effective for the quads and glutes,” Riccardi says. “For the TFL and iliopsoas, it might be better to dig in with a lacrosse ball since they’re smaller muscles, though a skilled physical therapist would also be able to target these areas with various manual techniques,” he says.
1. Quads: Focus one leg at a time with the other off to the side. Start with the foam roller just above your knee and move up your leg slowly, going up 2 inches, then back down 1 inch, repeating until you get to the top. “If you feel any tender spots, pause on them; bend and relax your knee a few times before moving on,” Riccardi suggests.
2. Glutes: Sit on foam roller and lean towards one side. Take the leg on the side you are leaning towards and cross that foot over the other knee. Then simply roll up and down the glutes slowly. Make sure to rotate slightly to get the outer and inner portions of the glutes as well.
1. TFL: Place a lacrosse ball about 1 1/2 inches below your hip bone and 1 inch to the outside. Put your weight on the ball so you’re slightly at an angle—not quite on your stomach, but not fully on your side. “Try to relax on the ball as much as you can,” Riccardi says. “If the lacrosse ball is too intense, try a tennis ball or even a foam roller to start.”
2. Iliopsoas: Lie on your stomach and place the ball about halfway between your belly button and hip bone on one side. While in place, lying on your stomach, try lifting the same side’s arm and leg into the air. “This will increase the weight over the ball and dig it in even more,” Riccardi says. Again, if a lacrosse ball is too intense, start with a tennis ball.
The best exercises to relieve Snapping Hip Syndrome
“Once pain begins to decrease, progress to more functional exercises,” Riccardi says. “Make sure you have proper form throughout these exercises; it’s incredibly important to make sure you’re not overusing the muscles causing the issues in the first place,” he adds. Riccardi also suggests meeting with a physical therapist and/or an athletic trainer. They’ll be able to provide cues to improve alignment, positioning, and overall form. Try the following exercises:
1. Squat (and variations): Master the bodyweight squat, then play with your foot positioning. “Try some with a neutral, shoulder-width, even a little wider with your toes angled out, or some a little narrower than shoulder-width,” Riccardi says. “Eventually progress to single-leg squats, which are much more functional,” he adds. You’ll challenge your balance and force your stabilizing muscles (glutes, adductors, core) to engage much more than if you did an exercise with both legs at the same time. “The goblet squat is great because using a light weight, like 10 pounds, actually helps improve form by helping to shift your center of mass,” Riccardi says. Try to work up to 3 sets of 8-12 reps.
2. Walking lunges: “Take a big step forward on one foot, then reach both hands in front of your stepping knee by hinging forward at your hips,” Riccardi says. Keep the weight on your heel and try not to let your knee shift over your toes. If this is difficult, try taking a bigger step. Do 3 sets of 10-12 reps on each leg. You can also try a variation where you reach across the stepping leg. So when you lunge with your right foot, you reach slightly to the right of the knee. This helps activate your glutes more on that side.
3. Static plank: Come into a low plank position on your elbows. “Squeeze your glutes and try to tilt your pelvis back by tucking your butt under,” Riccardi says. Hold for 45-60 seconds. Repeat 3 times. If it’s too difficult, do the plank from your knees to start.
4. Side plank on forearm: Come onto one forearm and raise your hips so they’re in line with the rest of your body. If this is too difficult, bend your knees so your bottom knee is in contact with the floor, not your foot. Hold for 45-60 seconds. Repeat 3 times.
5. Isometric hip raise: Stand on one leg and place your hand on the thigh of the elevated leg. Try to bring this knee toward your chest while meeting the pressure with your hand. Hold for 5-10 seconds, then move your knee up a little higher and repeat. “Isometrics should be submaximal contractions, meaning you’re just applying a small amount of force to engage the muscle while not actually moving the joints through any range of motion during the contraction.” Riccardi says.
Note: “SHS can cause irritation of the surrounding area, leading to painful tendonitis and/or bursitis,” notes Riccardi. And as we mentioned, it could also indicate a more serious issue, like a labral tear or osteoarthritis. If you’re experiencing any pain with the popping, cracking, or snapping sound, see a professional.