Happy Leap Day!
Please welcome Arya pretlow to the Deep Roots Dance blog! She is a longtime yoga instructor and is a current member of our student troupe Nomaditude. I have asked her to write some guest articles, drawing on her extensive knowledge of yoga and human physiology, plus her work in the dance, to address common issues we dancers face.
Now without further ado, to the blog post!
I’m very excited to be a guest writer on the Deep Roots Dance blog! For today’s topic, I will discuss an area of the leg that causes a great deal of discomfort in many people. It’s called the ilio-tibial band, also referred to as the IT Band, and it’s a long segment of fibrous tissue that runs down the outer thigh. It originates in portions of the gluteus maximus (the big butt muscle), gluteus medius (a smaller butt muscle that’s a little bit above and to the side of the maximus), and the tensor fascia latae (a side hip muscle). The IT Band attaches to the tibia, just to the side of the knee joint.
Many people feel tenderness or even pain along the IT band, and there are a number of explanations for it. Since 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). Dancers often assume positions in which the legs are externally rotated, like a ballerina’s first position:
If a person has a habit of standing and walking with their legs turned out, 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, and oftentimes pain in the outer knee.
Runners often have pain along the IT band, but as a yoga teacher I have observed that many people have 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 stand with their legs turned out, or sit 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.
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).
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 fats increases the overall level of acidity in the body. Internal acidity decreases healing rates, and increases the likelihood of disease. It is helpful to keep in mind that cells are constantly being “born” and they 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 a person find short-term relief from the symptoms of IT band tenderness/pain.
- DIY massage can be a lifesaver if you have pain in your IT Band. Lie on your side with your hips and knees slightly bent. Hold a tennis ball in your hand, and use it to massage the length of the band, stopping before you get to your knee. It may be tender and painful, so be gentle and don’t overdo it. Of course, having a professional massage therapist work on your hips and legs can be very helpful.
- Regular practices that I have personally used and 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 is a fabulous piece of bio-mechanical engineering, providing stability to the leg and 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.
Please be responsible and check with your healthcare provider before starting new exercises or diets, or if the pain is severe. The advice offered above is intended as educational, not medical, advice.
This article originally appeared on The Daily Headache blog in 2007. It has been updated and edited by the author.