Do you get hip pain when sitting at a desk or computer for a long time? When you get up do you feel a pull along the front side of your body, like your mobility has been robbed from you while you were working? Does hip tightness and/or back pain seem to creep up every time you sit down - even if it’s only a slight ache?
You aren’t alone.
The average American adult sits for more 6.5 hours a day, according to a new study from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Many people also report digestive issues and pain in their low back, neck, leg, and knees after prolonged sitting. These may even show up before you notice pain or tightness in your hip - but the location of the pain may not be the primary cause of your discomfort. Oftentimes, the real cause of pain that develops as a result of sitting is hidden in the hip.
How your hip flexors work while sitting
It’s time to dig below the surface and cast a light on the seemingly innocuous duo in this tale: the psoas and the iliacus muscles.
Don’t know what I’m talking about? You probably know them by a more common name - hip flexors.
“Hip flexors” is a general term to describe the group of your hip muscles that connect to the bones in your thigh, pelvis, and spine that help to bring your leg forward. They’re the reason we are able to walk, run, step up a ladder and - yes - sit in your chair every day. When most people talk about hip flexor pain or tightness, they are specifically referring to (even if unknowingly) a more precise part of their hip flexors - the iliopsoas muscle, which is your psoas and iliacus muscles combined.
When working in perfect harmony, your iliopsoas muscle supports your whole body, stretching out and shortening to move your legs and help you run after energetic kids or do your favorite post-work yoga class.
But, like the supportive friend that we get used to having around, we tend to take our iliopsoas muscle for granted. After years of being there for you while you work long hours at your desk, commute in your car, and navigate the daily stresses of modern life, it can start to scream out for attention. Literally.
You see, when you sit down, you’re shortening - or contracting - the iliopsoas muscle and essentially asking it to stay “on” the entire time you’re in your chair. Its job is to hold you in place while sitting. So, basically, the psoas and the iliacus are keeping you from falling out of your seat.
The problem is, they aren’t meant to be in this position for a long time. Eventually, your iliopsoas muscle gets cramped and starts to develop painful muscle knots. And these concentrated parts of your muscle stay contracted even after the rest of your muscle has relaxed.
That’s when that insidious hip pain creeps in from sitting or when you begin slouching. Your body slouches as a natural response to gravity and an unconscious way to take a little stress off a fatigued iliopsoas.
Even after you stand up and begin to go about your day, your psoas and iliacus might feel like they’re still “frozen” in the contracted position they were in while you were sitting down. Doing this day after day is what causes constantly tight hip flexors and chronic hip pain while sitting.
Why stretching isn’t always the answer to tight hips
A common misconception is that, after a long day of sitting, tight hip flexors simply need a nice stretch, gentle massage or short walk around the block to release their grip on your core and back. But if your muscles have been contracting long enough to form knots and hip pain when sitting, stretching isn’t going to cut it.
Think of your psoas and iliacus muscles as rubber bands. When they are taken care of, they can stretch and contract, moving back and forth with ease. Now, imaging removing all the pressure from the rubber band and putting it in the freezer. The next time you go to stretch it out, it will resist you. If you stretch it too far it may even crack or break.
Your iliopsoas muscle is very strong - so it will take more than a few minutes of sitting down for it to become “frozen” and start causing you hip pain. That being said, it can happen faster than you think. Fortunately, there are a few simple things you can do to reduce the chances of your iliopsoas muscle causing you pain while sitting.
4 simple ways to prevent hip pain from sitting
Preventing tight hips is always better - and a lot less painful - than treating them! When it comes to your iliopsoas muscle and sitting down, the most important things to remember are form and frequent breaks.
1. Create a healthy workspace
For people who work at a computer all day, the easiest way to do that is set your desk and chair up to be as ergonomic as possible.
But if you are already having hip pain while sitting, I’d take this even one step further and look for a sit/stand desk. This will give you the option to change your body position throughout the day to make sure you’re not standing or sitting too much.
2. Check your form
Yes, seriously! You may have been “practicing” the art of sitting since you were a toddler, but if you have hip pain from sitting, you’re probably not doing it right.
Let’s compare how you are right now with the ideal sitting position.
Are your shoulders relaxed and over your hips, your neck neutral, and your feet on the floor with your chair high enough that your hips are slightly higher than your knees? A 90-degree angle is OK, but not optimal. Try sitting on a pillow to put your pelvis at a slight incline. Or, if one side of your iliopsoas muscle hurts more than the other, try tucking that foot underneath the chair - without crossing your legs!
Finally, your sternum should be up and your abs should be engaged so that there’s a very slight curve in your back. Slight is the magic word here. Not too much arch or your iliopsoas will work overtime.
This will take some of the pressure off your psoas and iliacus muscles and encourage a stronger core in the process!
3. Give your psoas and iliacus a break
One of the most important things to keep in mind to prevent hip pain while sitting: frequent breaks.
Every 30 minutes is ideal.
Only a 15-second break is enough to be a game-changer for your health and comfort. Get up, move your hips and spine from side to side, walk over to the window to take in the view, or go refill your coffee. A quick (but gentle) lunge stretch in place is perfect! The important thing is that you give your iliopsoas muscle a break from being contracted.
4. Teach your psoas and iliacus to relax
If you are reading this article, you’ve probably already developed a tight iliacus and psoas from sitting too much. Implementing the recommendations above may help the issue from worsening - and could even prevent hip flexor pain in the first place.
But, your already tight hip flexor will also need to learn how to relax. As I mentioned above, stretching is often not enough. The muscle has already decided to stay tight and contracted.
So, what do you do?
Muscle knots and tension respond to prolonged pressure by relaxing. This happens when the brain gets a message to finally release the tension it has been holding. But because of the location of the iliacus and psoas, it’s hard to reach with your hands or common tools.
This is where employing the help of the Hip Hook or a trusted practitioner is the key to getting this tension to release. After using the Hip Hook to successfully target the source of the hip pain you feel from sitting, you can then change your other daily habits with the recommendations above.
You’ll be well on your way to keeping your iliopsoas happy and healthy moving forward. And your reward for implementing these four easy steps will be huge relief from tight hip flexors and pain while sitting.
Your pain - whether you feel it in your hips, knees, feet, or back - could be a result of tight hip flexors and sitting too much. This could be one of the most simple changes to your life that could lead to the most profound transformations in your health and wellness.
Plunking down in your chair in the morning and staying glued to one spot all day is a disaster waiting to happen - but these are four small shifts you can make in your day that could have radical outcomes. And the best part is - they are easy to do!
If this has piqued your interest about your psoas and iliacus muscles, I really recommend that you keep learning more about the stretches and activities you can do to keep your muscles happy and healthy. I talk all about this subject in my bestselling book, Tight Hip, Twisted Core - The Key to Unresolved Pain.
The truth is, if you have a tight hip flexor - especially if it’s a result of years of poor sitting posture - you’re probably going to need some prolonged pressure to release it. The Hip Hook could be your new best friend.
If you want to dive deeper into how your hip flexors affect the rest of your body, check out this post.
Frequently asked questions about hip pain from sitting
Can sitting too long cause hip pain?
Sitting too much can be a contributing factor to hip pain. Being in a seated position for many hours each day may lead the hip flexors and other muscles around the hips to tighten up, which can create compression, decrease range of motion, and cause pain in/around the hips.
What helps hip pain from sitting?
When sitting down for longer periods of time, the muscles surrounding your hips are not being used and may have the tendency to tighten up and cause pain. If you experience hip pain while sitting, it can be a good idea to stop and take a break every so often to stretch and move around. You may also find it helpful to release the tight muscles in your hip flexors and your glutes, as well as performing supporting strength and mobility exercises.
Is sitting bad for the hip flexors?
When sitting, the hip flexors are placed into a shortened position where they can tighten up and become weaker. This may later lead to experiencing hip pain if the hip flexors are never able to truly relax and fully lengthen. To help, consider adding in some exercises to stretch and release tension in the hip flexors to reduce the likelihood of experiencing hip pain while sitting.
Can sitting too long cause buttock pain?
Sitting too much can be a contributing factor to buttock pain. Being in a seated position places the hip flexors into a shortened position, where they can become tight and pull the pelvis forward into an anterior tilt. The muscles on the back side of the body (like the glutes and hamstrings) may tighten up in response to try to maintain balance and prevent the pelvis from rotating forward even more. As these muscles tighten up, you may experience pain and tightness in the buttocks.