Do you ever feel like there is a snapping sensation around your hip or hear a popping sound when you’re going up stairs, are out for a walk, or standing up from a chair? Does it feel like your hip may be dislocating, or you may have the sensation of needing to snap or pop it back into place? Perhaps it causes pain or maybe it just feels annoying hearing that clicking sound as you go about your day.
Maybe you have sought guidance from your doctor, been prescribed physical therapy, or even tried to google the issue on your own, discovering that it's likely you may be experiencing snapping hip syndrome. So now what? Should you do the hip mobility exercises suggested, get that steroid injection for your hip bursitis, or maybe just ignore it? Some sources do, after all, tell you that the popping sound (especially absent of pain) is of no concern. You’re unsure of what route to take which is why you’re here, back on the internet, seeking answers.
We understand that the health and fitness world can offer confusing and conflicting information; Our aim in this article is to provide you with relevant resources to help you better understand what snapping hip syndrome is, why it can be an indicator of a bigger issue needing attention, and how to go beyond band aid fixes to address the problem at its source.
What is Snapping Hip Syndrome
Snapping hip syndrome is a condition in which you may sense a snapping or popping happening in the hip joint sometimes provoked by walking, dynamic motions like running or jumping, or every-day type motions like bending down or standing up. It can be felt in one or both hips, sometimes with an audible clicking or popping sound and can cause pain and irritation.
There are three types of snapping hip:
- External snapping hip:
- This refers to the motion of the iliotibial band (IT band), a tendon that runs down the side of the leg, over the lateral side of the greater trochanter. This is just a fancy anatomical term for the spot that can be found by putting your hand on the bony bump on the side of your hip. Normally the IT band glides smoothly over that bone when the hip moves but if the IT band is tight or if the muscles around the hip are weak this can cause an external snapping. As a result it can lead to feelings of hip instability or hip misalignment in motions such as biking or running.
- This snapping happens in front of the body and just inside the hip when one of the hip flexor muscles slides over the front of the hip bone and catches. This can often be felt as front of the hip or groin pain and can be caused by tight hip flexors or an imbalance in the hip muscles, often felt in motions such going from external to internal rotation of the leg (such as from a “frog leg” to toes pointed inward position). This type of snapping can potentially lead to a tear in the hip labrum over time.
- This happens inside the hip joint and can be caused by a tear in the cartilage lining of the hip or by debris floating inside the hip joint.
Some people report pain with snapping hips. This pain can vary from sharp, sudden sensations at the outside of the hip or in the groin, pain that develops gradually and that worsens with repetitive activity, or pain that causes inflammation of the bursae (fluid filled sacs, that cushion tendons, ligaments, and muscles) at the front or outside of the hip. While pain can be a reason why people more urgently seek to address the issue, snapping hips without pain should also be seen as a warning sign that there is an imbalance present that should be considered to avoid further problems. Think of it like a check engine light coming on in your car; Even if your car seems to still be driving smoothly it is wise to at the very least to take time to stop and check to see why the light is coming on and what issues may be present before proceeding.
Common causes and recommendations to fixing Snapping Hip Syndrome
Snapping hip is often attributed to an overuse of the hip complex with higher risk of development among people who do repetitive extreme hip motions such as with ballet dancers, weight lifters, soccer players, gymnasts and runners. With almost 90% of competitive ballet dancers reporting symptoms of snapping hips, this syndrome has even been coined as “dancer’s hip.” Additional causes, however, can be attributed to trauma or injury and can also be associated with young people experiencing growth spurts with the bones growing faster than the tendons or muscles and causing a tightness of the tissues.
The common recommendations for people with snapping hip syndrome are:
- If no pain, treatment is not warranted.
- When pain is present try rest, reducing or modifying activity, applying ice, or using over-the-counter pain relievers.
- If pain persists most people are recommended physical therapy which typically entails hip mobility exercises such as IT band, piriformis, hip flexor, and hamstring stretches.
- Those with bursitis may be offered corticosteroid injections.
- If none of the above helps relieve pain then surgery may be recommended.
The Problem of Ignoring Warning Signs and Short-Sighted Approaches
Returning to the example of snapping hips being like the check engine light coming on in your car, the above recommendation to rest and reduce activity seems like a wise decision. It may be a good time to pull off to the side of the road or limit unnecessary trips (consider The Movement Elimination Protocol) until you know what may be causing the light to go off and how serious the issue may be. What would not be wise is completely ignoring the issue and just assuming that the light, or in this case the snapping hip, can be written off just because your car has not yet shown signs of serious damage.
Okay, so I’ve pulled over and now I’m looking at resources of what to do. If tightness in my muscles and tendons may be the cause of my snapping hips, it seems I should do the stretches that my physical therapist recommended so I don’t feel so restricted.
Not so fast! While stretching may help you feel some temporary relief, this bandaid fix does not address why the tissues are restricted in the first place. Stretching can lead to further problems like overlengthing tissues and creating hypermobile joints by losing the push/pull tension that exists in the body to help keep you stable. To better understand why stretching can lead to serious damage in the long haul check out this video “Why Stretching Doesn’t Work” or the article “The Do’s and Dont’s of Dynamic Stretching.”
So then what? Pain relievers, isolated hip mobility exercises, steroid injections, or maybe even surgery? Do I have other options?
Smart of you to ask! Think of it this way, just because your check engine light comes on doesn’t mean that the issue is happening in your engine. Maybe the gas cap is loose. Instead of jumping to conclusions, it’d be wise to inspect all the possible reasons why the alarm sounded in the first place. Maybe in the process you’ll discover that there are issues you didn’t even realize were present but good on you for checking because you’re able to proactively get ahead of the future issues at hand.
The Missing Piece: Addressing Hip Problems from a Systems Approach
If you’ve ever gone to a doctor, physical therapist, or other movement “specialist,” how often have they assessed your entire structure? Have they explained to you the implications of how imbalances or lack of engagement in your core, for example, can impact your hips and knees? Have they taken footage to show you how those postural imbalances play out in your most fundamental movement, the human gait (walking or running)? Have they then shown you results of how they have helped people of many ages, ability levels, and experiences of pain make objectively noticeable changes to create better symmetry in their structure and eliminate persistent discomforts? Assessing the entire body in this way is crucial because the reality is that the issue of a popping hip may not be able to be resolved by strictly improving the hip complex, rather other areas of the body need to be addressed as well.
At Functional Patterns this is why we start with step one: identifying imbalance. Taking posture photos and gait cycle footage will help you see your baseline and understand areas that need attention to create a better supported structure.
Next comes step two: release. Rather than passive stretching, using simple tools like a lacrosse ball, PVC pipe, or medicine ball can help you feel relief from restrictions in your tissues. For snapping hip syndrome, releases of the glutes, hamstrings, tensor fascia latae (TFL), and IT band are all important places to pinpoint, as is shown in the photo below from the 10-week Online Program.
Now that you’ve released restrictions in the tissues it’s important to head to step three: reposition and stabilize. This comes from precisely correcting postural dysfunctions and learning to get entire chains of muscles working together. For someone with snapping hips it will be useful to learn to improve core engagement and get an active lengthening and shortening of the tissues which involves a type of stretch that helps build stability rather than hyperflexibility in your structure. Think of a rubber band; The power in shooting a rubber band comes from the recoil of going from a lengthened to shortened position versus doing hip mobility stretches that pull your tissues into an over-lengthened position which can turn you into a walking noodle. The demonstration of the medicine ball slam shown in Functional Training System provides a good example of how to work on posture and stability, while also accomplishing step four: building strength with movement.
Okay, I’m starting to see how hip stability is a bigger issue than just what’s happening at the hip but what does this look like in practice for someone to address their whole structure?
Good question. Below is an example of the type of changes we’re looking for at Functional Patterns. Do you notice the difference of hip stability between the two photos of this client’s running footage? Whether or not this person was experiencing pain in the hips we can clearly see in the first image that there is a significant jarring of his hips when he lands which can lead to many problems including tight IT bands, hip, knee and ankle problems, excessive pressure on tendons and ligaments, and further perpetuating muscular imbalances. Getting to a place of better hip stability was much more involved than simply resting, icing, passive stretches, steroid shots, or surgery. It instead involved assessing his structure, releasing restrictions, and doing precise corrective exercises to build muscular engagement and integration across his entire body so that he could start moving and feeling better.
Experiencing snapping hip syndrome is a warning sign that there is an imbalance or restriction in your body that needs addressing. If it’s causing you pain you’re likely seeking answers, perhaps already having tried the conventional options like the hip mobility stretches presented above. But even if you’re not in pain, consider that normalizing a snapping sensation may not be your wisest option. By learning to assess your structure and then choosing exercises that seek to correct that imbalance you will be on a much better path to moving and feeling better for the long haul. Ultimately it’s up to you, but if long-term health is your priority consider checking out the life-changing results from our clients around the world or get started for yourself with the Functional Patterns 10 Week Online Program.