By the time I was 22, walking down stairs was getting pretty difficult on account of a constant pinching sensation in my left knee. Six months and a completely pointless MRI later, I was able to start walking down stairs again, though something was amiss elsewhere.
I felt like my hips were no longer as limber as they had been.
Since I played as a roller hockey goalie from the age of 12 (and on ice from the age of 16), I had always had fairly mobile and resilient hips. Groin pulls while playing goalie are quite common, and I ended up with some pretty severe recurring groin pulls over the years. Each time, I was told by my doctor and/or physical therapist to rest until things healed.
Unfortunately, the pulls never seemed to feel fully healed.
So at 22, I was having trouble walking.
And at 25, the knee pain had fully migrated up into my hips as some severe stiffness.
All kinds of pain are very subjective and can therefore be very hard to describe in a way someone else will understand, but suffice it to say that my hips felt like someone had taken all the padding out of them and that I had rough chalky bits rubbing against one another.
In addition, I felt like there were certain positions that made my legs felt tense and extremely weak. Lying on my side in bed, for example, made me feel almost trapped — like I couldn’t roll on to my back without using my arms without doing some kind of damage to my back or hips.
Eventually I started feeling pops in my hips geting in and out of the shower; I knew that something was going very, very wrong with my hips at that point, and I remember a period of about three months where walking on ANY surface was very difficult because of constant pain in my left knee.
I’m back to playing hockey two to three times a week without pain in my left knee. It took a few years of dedicated effort, but my hips feel unbelievably better than where they were when I started. Are they 100% so that I can do the full splits at the drop of a hat? Not yet, but they’re getting there (just gotta find a way to stop having to sit or stand at the computer so much and perhaps just get paid to stretch all day!).
I have had the good fortune to work with a lot of people with various kinds of hip pain in the last few years, and there are three principles that I think help anyone dealing with hip pain, stiffness, or weakness.
1) Be consistent.
Whatever you do to try to help your hips get better, make sure you do it regularly. If you’re foam rolling, stretching your quads, or doing bridges to try to wake up your butt muscles, you must do your routine AT LEAST daily to really gauge whether things are working. Every time you sit down, you put your hip muscles to sleep, which can lead to weakness and/or shortness in some muscles that imbalance your hip joints. So stretch early and stretch often!
2) Be patient.
If your hips are just run-of-the-mill weak and atrophied, you can expect it to take at least 2 weeks or more to start feeling like your hips are moving any differently. If you’re doing static stretches, flexibility gains may come slowly (and NOT AT ALL if you don’t hold your stretches long enough). If you’re foam rolling, seeing a real reduction in sensitivity and increase in flexibility usually takes 2-4 weeks of consistently going at it.
3) Be experimental.
If you’ve been trying one approach for your hips (e.g. stretching your hip flexors) consistently for a month and you notice no difference whatsoever or a worsening in the stiffness in your hips, make sure you acknowledge it and see if a different approach helps you more.
For some people, doing constant hip flexor stretching work wonders. For others, it may make the hip stiffness worse. It depends on you and what your daily life and routines look like. If your hip flexor stretching doesn’t work, see what happens when you focus on your piriformis (and other external rotators) and your glutes. If that doesn’t work? Try the adductors or the IT bands. For a real thrill, you can also focus some attention on getting the back and upper body better aligned too to help take any awkward loads off your hip joints.
Because the hip joints are governed by a tangle of muscles, it is impossible to accurately predict what muscle groups dysfunctions cause everyone’s hip stiffness, but with a little persistence, patience, and willingness to experiment, it is possible to get your hips moving again. Just don’t give up!