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Snapping Hip Syndrome

Learn what’s making your hip snap and how to treat it.

What is snapping hip syndrome?

Snapping hip syndrome is a snapping sensation that occurs when you walk or stand up. You can feel the snap and may also hear a pop. The snapping occurs either on the front or the outside of the hip.

It is caused by the movement of tendons (the tissue that connects muscles to bones) passing over bone at the hip. It occurs most often in athletes that flex and extend their legs regularly.

It is also known as dancer’s hip. Though bikers, soccer players, gymnasts, and runners are also more likely to develop it.

The medical name is coxa saltans.

It can usually be treated with rest, physical therapy, and over-the-counter medications.

What is causing your symptoms?

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Most common symptoms

Pro Tip

Symptoms I listen for when diagnosing this illness: Snapping in the “groin.” Snapping on the “outside of the hip.” Snapping when I twist the hip. Mild to moderate pain. No limp, generally. —Dr. Bradley Graw

A snapping sensation or a popping sound comes from the front, back, or side of the upper thigh, near the hip socket. Often, it worsens over time and becomes louder. The snapping is heard when doing a particular movement, such as walking, or even when standing.

You may also notice a catching or locking sensation.

It’s often painless. Though, eventually, it can lead to inflammation of surrounding tissue and cause pain.

Main symptoms

  • Snapping sensation in the hip.
  • Popping sound coming from the affected hip.
  • A locking sensation, as if the hip is stuck.

Other symptoms you may have

  • Pain and swelling: The repeated strumming of the tendon can irritate the bursa (a sac with fluid that cushions joints). When exposed to repeated trauma, like the rubbing of the tendon, the bursa can become inflamed and painful, causing hip bursitis.
  • Muscle weakness. Snapping hip syndrome can cause weakness in the buttocks muscle (gluteus medius). Muscle weakness can also make it worse.

What causes snapping hip syndrome?

Snapping hips are usually caused by tightness in the muscles and tendons around the hip and thigh.

  • The most common cause is a tight iliotibial band, a large tendon that runs along the outside side of the thigh. The tendon moves across the top of the thigh bone (femur), which is shaped like a large knob (the greater trochanter). If the tendon is tight, it makes a snapping sensation, similar to a rubber band. It gradually worsens and may become painful if not treated.
  • Tight rectus femoris tendon. This tendon runs down the front of your thigh. When the hip flexes (bends), straightens, or when you bring your knees up to your chest, the tendon passes along the top of the hip bone and strums it. When the tendon is tight, it can cause a snapping or clicking sensation. This is more common in adolescent athletes who are experiencing rapid growth of the thigh bones while participating in intense exercise. Typically, it slowly gets worse. But usually without pain.
  • Tight hamstring tendon. The tendon that attaches the muscles at the back of the thigh (hamstring) to the sit bones (ischial tuberosity) creates a snapping sensation when the tendon moves across the bones. This is less common.
  • Damage inside the hip joint can also affect the hip’s ability to move smoothly. Sometimes the cartilage (smooth tissue that lines joints) is damaged from an injury or overuse. This leads to friction between bones when you move. Or in some cases, there are loose pieces of cartilage or bone that prevent the joint from working smoothly. These can lead to a “catching” or “locking” sensation. This can be painful.  Another common problem inside the joint is a “labral tear” where the cartilage lining of the socket is damaged.

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How do you treat snapping hip syndrome?

Dr. Rx

Unless pain is too severe, begin a stretching regimen for the hip. —Dr. Graw

At-home therapies

  • Reduce the activity that is causing the snapping for a period of time.
  • Apply ice to the affected region.
  • Take non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as ibuprofen or naproxen to reduce inflammation and pain.
  • Modify your exercise to reduce or eliminate repetitive motion of the hip. You may need to stop biking, swimming, dancing, or running.
  • Stretching and strengthening exercises.

Physical therapy

Stretching can release tight tendons that move across the thigh and hips. Stretching is focused on the iliotibial band or other involved tendons as well as the large muscles in your thigh and buttocks. The American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons recommends these stretches.

Do stretching exercises before and after physical activity and even when no specific activity is planned for the day. It may take weeks or even months to stretch the tendons and muscles enough for the snapping to stop. Stretches may reduce pain, but if the pain continues, you may need to see a doctor.

Treatments by an orthopedic doctor

In severe cases, your doctor may recommend these treatments:

  • Corticosteroid injections. If pain is limiting your ability to move or stretch the area, you may need an injection to the bursa sac to quickly reduce the inflammation.
  • Surgery. In very rare circumstances, a snapping hip may require surgery. This may only be necessary if cartilage is damaged or loose inside the hip joint. It can be done using small incisions (arthroscopic surgery) to insert a camera and small tools to repair the damage if necessary.

Risk factors

People ages 15 to 40 and females are more likely to get snapping hip syndrome.

Dancers and athletes who do sports that involve bending at the hip often develop it.  Especially young athletes, as growth spurts can make muscles and tendons tight.

Is snapping hip syndrome serious?

Snapping hip syndrome is usually not a medical emergency. If it is limiting your activity or causing too much discomfort, see your primary care physician or an orthopedist.

If your leg or hip is locking and cannot bear weight, you should call your doctor. It could put you at risk of falling.

If you have a fever and swelling of the hip, seek medical care. You may have a life- or limb-threatening infection.

Pro Tip

Ask your doctor: When should I be worried that there is something more going on that would require surgery or advanced imaging? —Dr. Graw

Prevention

  • Avoid repetitive activities.
  • Stretching can help prevent snapping hip syndrome.
  • A physical therapist or sports coach may be able to advise you on how to alter behaviors and movements to place less strain on the hip.
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