When you have a headache, is the area on your thighs tender when you push on in the area where your arms hit? How about when you don’t?
Your responses to my completely unscientific experiment gave mixed results. According to my acupuncturist, this area is more tender during a headache than when you’re headache free. This is true for some of you, the opposite for others, and irrelevant for those who have a tender spot all the time or none of the time.
I was disappointed that I couldn’t give you any conclusions, but my yoga teacher inadvertently saved the day. She mentioned in class that the ilio-tibial band, which happens to correspond with the exact area that you pushed on, is sore in many people.
Whether or not it’s related to headaches is up for debate. That’s no reason to ignore the soreness. Kelly, being an anatomy geek and yoga therapist, has written up a great description of the IT band and suggestions for reducing the tenderness.
By Kelly M. Pretlow
Certified Purna Yoga Instructor
The ilio-tibial band, commonly referred to as the IT Band, is a long segment of fibrous tissue that runs down the outer thigh. It originates in portions of the gluteus maximus, gluteus medius, and tensor fascia latae. It attaches to the tibia, just below the knee joint. [larger image available here]
Many people feel tenderness or even pain along the IT band, and there are a number of explanations for it. Because this length of tissue starts in the muscles of the hip, tightness and imbalance in those muscles can lead to irritation of the IT band. For example, one of the major functions of the gluteus maximus is to externally rotate the hip/thigh (it has other functions — this is just one example).
If a person has a habit of standing and walking with their legs turned out, like a ballerina, then the gluteus maximus is in an almost constant state of contraction. The tighter that muscle becomes, the more it pulls the IT band toward it, causing strain along the band itself, or perhaps pain in the outer knee.
Runners often have pain along the IT band, but as a Purna Yoga teacher I have observed that much of the population has some degree of tenderness there. Whether it is due to activities, tightness, stress or muscular imbalances, there are a number of ways to find relief:
- First and foremost, posture must be addressed. No matter how much a person stretches, if they are often sitting with crossed legs, which externally rotates the hip/thigh, then they are still aggravating this tissue. Pinpointing postural habits and correcting as needed is key.
- Secondly, stretching the muscles from which the IT band originates will slowly but surely relieve the underlying physical issue. In Purna Yoga, we have a sequence called the hip opening series, which stretches the muscles of the hip, in turn allowing greater range of motion and freedom of movement (this series should only be taught by a qualified instructor).
- Thirdly, it is important to remember the role that emotions, stress, and psychological challenges have on the body. The muscles of the hip provide stability to the pelvis. The pelvis holds the energy of creation, along with many of our more “animal” instincts, fears, passions and urges. Fear, for example, can create a sense of “falling apart.” The body responds to fear by tightening up in order to, literally, keep it together. If a person holds a lot of basic survival fear, then that should be addressed as one of the factors leading to tension in the muscles of the hip, and therefore pain down the outer thigh.
- Nutrition and hydration play a large role in how well the body functions. Dehydration makes the tissue sticky, if you will, which limits its ability to flush toxins and by-products. A diet rich in processed foods, sugar, caffeine, alcohol, dairy products and animal foods increases the overall level of acidity in the body. Internal acidity decreases healing rates, and increases the likelihood of disease. Remember, cells are constantly being “born” and need good nutrition in order to function well and be healthy.
- Hot baths with epsom salts, a muscle salve or other topical ointment with peppermint oil or similar can help one find short-term relief from the symptoms of IT band tenderness/pain.
- Regular practices that I have used which help immensely include: yoga (especially with a well-trained instructor who is familiar with this issue and its underlying causes), hip stretches, leg strengthening, massage therapy and physical therapy.
The IT band, while a source of discomfort for some, is a fabulous piece of bio-mechanical engineering. It provides stability to the leg, enabling humans to run. It is my hope that by learning some basic information about this tissue, readers can find ways to prevent or relieve discomfort. As with any physical pain, it may take some sleuthing to find the cause, but learning the tools to become or remain pain-free makes the detective work worthwhile.