The hamstring muscle complex is comprised of three individual muscles and plays a critical role in human activities ranging from standing to explosive actions such as sprinting and jumping. The following review article will summarize the structure and function of this muscle group and provide an introduction to common hamstring injuries and surgical considerations.
The semitendinosus, semimembranosus, and biceps femoris muscles comprise the hamstring muscle group. Beginning at the pelvis and running posteriorly along the length of the femur, the majority muscles within the hamstring complex cross both the femoroacetabular and tibiofemoral joints. The short head of the biceps femoris is an exception to this rule as it originates from the lateral lip of the femoral linea aspera, distal to the femoroacetabular joint. For this reason, some argue that the short head of the biceps femoris is not a true hamstring muscle. Unlike the short head of the biceps femoris, all other hamstring muscles originate from the ischial tuberosity. The proximal, long head of the biceps femoris and semitendinosus muscles are linked by an aponeurosis which extends approximately 7 cm from the ischial tuberosity. The distal hamstrings form the superolateral (biceps femoris) and superomedial (semimembranosus and semitendinosus) borders of the popliteal fossa. The gastrocnemius primarily forms the inferior border of the popliteal fossa.
The hamstring muscle group plays a prominent role in hip extension (posterior movement of the femur) and knee flexion (posterior movement of the tibia and fibula). Concerning the gait cycle, the hamstrings activate beginning at the final 25% of the swing phase generating extension force at the hip and resisting knee extension. The hamstring muscles also play an essential role as a dynamic stabilizer of the knee joint. Operating in tandem with the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL), the hamstrings resist anterior translation of the tibia during the heel strike phase of the gait cycle.
A significant portion of lower extremity development occurs during weeks 4 to 8 of embryogenesis. Like all other skeletal muscle tissue, the hamstring muscles form from the embryonic mesoderm. Migrating from the somites during the early embryonic phase, mesodermal cells differentiate into myoblasts, which duplicate and coalesce, eventually forming functional muscle tissue.
The hamstring muscle complex receives vascular supply from the perforating branches of the deep femoral artery, also known as the profunda femoris artery. The profunda femoris is a branch of the femoral artery. The femoral artery is demarcated from the external iliac artery by the inguinal ligament. In general, the deep veins of the thigh share the same name as the major arteries which they follow. The femoral vein is responsible for a large degree of the venous drainage of the thigh. It accompanies the femoral artery and receives additional venous drainage from the profunda femoris vein. Similar to the femoral artery, the femoral vein transitions to become the external iliac vein at the level of the inguinal ligament. The lymphatic drainage of the thigh also mirrors the arterial supply and eventually drains into the lumbar lymphatic trunks and cisterna chyli.
The hamstring muscle complex is innervated by nerves that arise from the lumbar and sacral plexuses. These plexuses give rise to the sciatic nerve (L3-S4), which bifurcates into the tibial and common peroneal (fibular) nerves at the level of the tibiofemoral joint. The tibial nerve innervates the semimembranosus, semitendinosus, and long head of the biceps femoris. The common peroneal branch of the sciatic nerve innervates the short head of the biceps femoris.
Biceps Femoris: Short Head
Biceps Femoris: Long Head
Although they are uncommon, surgeons must remain aware of hamstring muscle anatomical variations. The hamstring muscle group, except for the short head of the biceps femoris, typically originates from a conjoint muscle-tendon arising from the ischial tuberosity. Interestingly, there are reports which reveal variants where the semitendinosus and the long head of the biceps femoris appear from distinct tendinous origins. Another report published in 2013 revealed findings of a third head of the biceps femoris and an anomalous muscle that inserted onto the semimembranosus.
There is also a report of a patient with bilateral absence of the semimembranosus muscles. This finding was noticed incidentally on MRI after the patient presented with knee pain after a fall. Although the article did not indicate whether or not the patient had experienced symptoms related to this before his presentation, this finding may be relevant in the context of ACL reconstruction as hamstring autografts are a common choice.
Common peroneal nerve entrapment neuropathy most commonly occurs at the level of the fibular head and neck. A 2018 report revealed the findings of common peroneal neuropathy associated with variation of the short head of the biceps femoris. In this case, the location of the common peroneal nerve was within a 4.4 cm tunnel between the gastrocnemius and short head of the biceps femoris.
The vast majority of hamstring injuries are manageable nonoperatively; however, hamstring tendon avulsion often requires surgical intervention. Hamstring tendon avulsions are treated endoscopically with fixation of the torn segment of the hamstring tendon to the ischial tuberosity. Surgical repair of chronic proximal hamstring rupture can have augmentation with an Achilles tendon autograft.
Ischial apophyseal avulsion fractures are extremely rare. Studies report that they account for between only 1.4 to 4% of all hamstring injuries. Avulsion fractures that are displaced less than 1 cm are candidates for conservative management. Patients are advised to limit hamstring stretching, preventing the fractured segment of the ischial apophysis from becoming further displaced. Surgical fixation is necessary for patients who have ischial apophyseal avulsion fractures, which are displaced more than 1 cm or who are experiencing symptomatic malunion. Early intervention is advised to decrease the risk of ischiofemoral impingement.
The hamstring muscle is harvestable as an autograft in ACL reconstruction. The quadruple hamstring autograft involves the semitendinosus and gracilis muscles and is known to be one of the strongest grafts available. Compared to patellar tendon grafts, hamstring autografts offer a decreased risk of donor site trauma, patellofemoral crepitation, kneeling pain, and loss of more than 5 degrees of knee extension. In contrast, studies demonstrate that hamstring autografts have an increased risk of laxity and functional hamstring weakness. To date, no conclusive evidence exists, suggesting that one graft material produces superior long-term results. A study by Kocher et al. found no association between graft type and patient satisfaction in patients undergoing ACL reconstruction using hamstring and patellar grafts.
Hamstring strains are common in both elite and recreational athletes. In addition to being highly prevalent, hamstring injuries are often slow healing and tend to recur. Estimates are that nearly one-third of those who suffer from a hamstring injury will reinjure themselves within one year of returning to their sport. Most hamstring strains occur in the context of high-risk activities such as sprinting, where rapid changes in speed or direction cause excessive muscle lengthening. Biceps femoris is the most frequently injured of the hamstrings, followed by the semimembranosus and then the semitendinosus. Typically, hamstring injuries are characterized by pain in the posterior thigh, which can be exacerbated by knee flexion and hip extension. In severe injuries, patients may also report hearing a popping sound. During an evaluation of a patient with a possible hamstring injury, it is important that clinicians also consider other diagnostic possibilities such as lumbosacral radiculopathy, adductor strain, or a femoral stress fracture.
Hamstring strain injuries classify as mild (Grade I), moderate (Grade II) or severe (Grade III) based on the severity of patient symptoms. Grade I injuries are characterized by minimal pain and functional impairment, with minimal disruption to the hamstring myofibrils present. Grade II injuries are partial thickness tears to the musculotendinous fibers. Patients exhibit increased pain with definite strength loss. Grade III tears characterized present with severe pain, hematoma, significant strength loss, and a full-thickness tear to the hamstring muscle or tendon. Orthopedic consultation is the recommendation for Grade III tears and Grade II/III tears, which affect the distal aspect of the hamstring.
In the acute phase, the initial management of hamstring injuries is with protection, rest, ice, compression, and elevation to limit inflammation and swelling. Range of motion should be dictated by patient pain tolerance, as excessive stretching of the hamstrings may lead to scar tissue formation. The role of NSAIDs in hamstring injury is somewhat controversial, with some studies failing to show recovery benefits and others demonstrating possible adverse effects. However, short courses (5 to 7 days) of NSAIDs do not significantly hamper recovery and should be used primarily as analgesics. Alternative pharmacologic agents, such as platelet-rich-plasma (PRP), have been explored for their use in enhancing athlete recovery. Concerning PRP, there is no strong evidence to support its use for muscle strain injury.
In patients who have healed to the point where they can begin therapeutic activities, exercise regimens that focus on eccentric contraction have been shown to shorten recovery time significantly. These regimens can be altered based on the patient’s phase of rehabilitation and can continue to decrease the rate of reinjury. Although hamstring stretching is commonly advocated to decrease the probability of reinjury, hamstring flexibility training has not demonstrated a decrease in the incidence of hamstring re-injury. Studies have also emphasized the importance of neuromuscular control of the lumbopelvic region. A 2004 prospective randomized study found that patients suffering from acute hamstring strain injury who were rehabilitated using a progressive agility and trunk stabilization program showed lower rates of reinjury compared to those enrolled in a more standard progressive stretching and a strengthening program.
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