The tensor fasciae latae A.K.A. the TFL is a small but mighty muscle that is frequently overworked as it is put into action with each step we take. As a result, the tensor fasciae latae can become tight, leading to uncomfortable pain. The TFL works with multiple muscles enabling us to walk and stay balanced on one leg.
This muscle is well known to professionals in pain management, however it isn’t completely understood on how it works with the other hip abductors or its neighbor the iliotibial band. What we do know is that the tensor fasciae latae is a muscle that should be stretched and massaged in order to keep it in good health. Continue reading for step by step instructions and images depicting the 10 best TFL stretches plus bodyweight exercises to help reduce its over-activity.
The tensor fasciae latae gets its name from the Latin words tendere meaning to tense, fascia meaning band and latae meaning side or lateral. The name literally describes the function and location of the muscle. It is the muscle that tenses a band on the side of the body. Many people have trouble with the pronunciation of the tensor fasciae latae so it is more commonly referred to as the TFL.
The TFL is fusiform muscle (spindle shaped muscle- wider in the middle with narrowing ends) located in the thigh area between two layers of fascia latae. It’s approximately 7 inches(18cm) long, 1/16 inch(2mm) thick and is covering part of the gluteus minimus and the gluteus medius.
The function of the tensor fasciae latae is to medially rotate and abduct the femur at the hip joint. Due to the oblique direction of the muscle fibers, the TFL works in unison with multiple muscle groups to aid in movement and stabilization of the hip and knee especially during extension. The TFL is considered a hip abductor muscle that also works with the gluteus medius and gluteus minimus to internally rotate and abduct the hip.
Perhaps the most basic function of the TFL is walking. However, the TFL is heavily involved in activities like kicking a soccer ball, jumping over hurdles and riding horses. Lastly, in all single leg movements the TFL is engaged to help us balance.
What is the Iliotibial Band?
You will often hear about the IT band when talking about the TFL for good reason. The TFL and IT band have a close relationship especially in circumstances where the TFL allows the IT band to load up and generate more elastic force which is crucial in many dynamic sports.
The iliotibial band gets its name from the Latin words ilio referring to the ilium (big flat bone of the pelvis) and tibial referencing the tibia and band because the ilotibial band is a narrow sinewy strip. The iliotibial band is frequently abbreviated to IT band or ITB. It’s also known as the iliotibial tract or Maissiat’s band. This long strand of fascia is on the outer leg and it stretches from the hip to the knee and shinbone.
Function of the Iliotibial Band
The main function of the ITB is to abduct, extend and rotate the hip. The ITB also provides protection to the outer thigh and helps to stabilize and move the outer knee. Even though it is not technically a muscle the IT band helps to store and release elastic tension making activities like walking and running more efficient. Like the TFL the ITB can become overused. This overactivity of repetitive flexion and extension of the knees can lead to a common injury suffered by runners and cyclists called IT band syndrome or ITBS. When the ITB becomes tight, swollen or irritated it can cause too much friction on the lateral side of the knee when bending, resulting in pain. ITBS can even lead to referred hip pain in some cases.
A tight TFL can be contributed to a number of causes but the most common reason is that it is overused to help compensate for weakness in the surrounding muscles. The progression leading to a tight TFL muscle is as follows:
Weak gluteal muscles lead to the piriformis becoming overworked to aid in stabilizing the hip which in turn results in the TFL helping the piriformis, finally leading to tight TFL muscles.
Oher common causes of tight TFL include poor posture with your weight shifted to one side, prolonged periods of sitting, weak hip flexors and weak hip abductors.
Before we get into stretches for the TFL you should perform an assessment to see if you in fact have a tight TFL muscle. We will cover two of the most common tests for determing if you suffer from tight TFL muscles.
Note: You should consult your doctor to diagnose and treat all injuries or before starting new stretching or exercise routines
This test gets its name from Dr. Hugh Owen Thomas, a British orthopaedic surgeon in the 1800’s. He used this test to rule out psoas syndrome and hip flexion contracture. The test is rather straightforward as you can see below.
Result: If your lowered leg ends up out to your side instead of straight down under you, you might have a tight TFL.
Developed by Frank Ober this test first appeared in an article in 1935 of the Journal of Bone and Joint Surgery when discussing back strain and sciatica. The purpose of this test is to assess tightness of the TFL and ITB.
Result: If the upper knee can’t by lowered past the mid line of the body then the TFL may be tight.
Modified Ober Test
Result: If the leg doesn’t drop to around 10 degrees below the mid line then it indicates a tight TFL and ITB.
Tight TFL muscles can often lead to TFL pain. To mitigate your chances of experiencing TFL tightness you should be stretching this muscle frequently. The TFL is one of the most used muscles in the body because it’s recruited in many daily functions such as walking and climbing stairs. We put together the 10 best stretches to release tight TFL muscles.
Note: Speak with your doctor before attempting any new stretching or exercise routine.
How do I Strengthen my TFL?
The best way to strengthen your TFL is by performing exercises where your leg is being lifted away from the mid line of your body during hip abduction. The TFL isn’t like other smaller muscles that can be isolated and strengthened, it is generally used in conjunction with surrounding hip abductor muscles like the gluteus minimus and gluteus medius.
It’s interesting to note that it may be more important to strengthen the surrounding muscles of the TFL to prevent overactivity or injury. The TFL can become overused because it is compensating for weaker muscles.
The TFL is a small workhorse of a muscle that can become overused. Because of this reason it’s important to perform strengthening exercises that activate the neighboring hip abductor muscles, the gluteus minimus and gluteus medius while reducing the load on the TFL.
Note: Make it easier by performing without a resistance band.
Note: Make it easier by completing without a resistance band.
TFL pain can present itself in a variety of ways and be the result of different stresses. The usual symptoms of TFL pain are:
The symptoms of TFL pain a largely similar to trochanteric bursitis and for both of these conditions the treatment protocol is almost the same.
To release a tight TFL muscle without stretching you can look to trigger point therapy or myofascial release using a massage ball, foam roller or other semi-rigid ball. The TFL tends to tighten up because it’s a very active muscle, this tightness can lead to pain, hip and knee instability and in some cases dysfunction such as piriformis syndrome pain.
Follow these steps to use massage to release a tight TFL muscle:
How Long to Heal Tensor Fasciae Latae?
The healing time of a TFL injury is dependent on the injury. If there’s a muscle strain then the recovery time can last for 1-3 weeks. For more serious muscle tears recovery can take 4-6 weeks or longer to heal. It’s important to treat TFL pain early on as untreated injuries can result in chronic pain with extended recovery periods.
Can you Run with a TFL Injury?
You should let the TFL heal before attempting to restart your running. An injured or weakened TFL means that your posture and gait will be compromised as other muscles will try to compensate for the lack of support. The TFL is a crucial muscle to help support the hips and knee which are two regions of the body that are worked when running. The TFL is shortened in the hips with each step you take. The knee absorbs a decent amount of impact from your feet hitting the ground while running.
Running is a high impact activity that can worsen a TFL injury and also cause other issues such as knee pain, patellofemoral pain syndrome (PFPS), iliotibial band syndrome (ITBS) and even meniscus injuries.
The TFL requires adequate attention and maintenance as this little powerhouse often takes on too much trying to pick up the slack for its weaker counterparts. Whether you’re an extremely active person that runs daily or extremely inactive sitting for most of the day it is necessary to regularly stretch and massage the tensor fasciae latae. By being proactive and treating your TFL with the care it deserves you will save yourself the inconvenience of experiencing tightness or pain in the future.
More Resources on Stretching:
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