Better Me

A Muscle You Probably Never Heard of Could Be Causing Your Hip Pain

When you think of your glutes, you’re probably thinking of your gluteus maximus muscles. Those are the big muscles found in your buttocks that power you when you run or climb stairs. But those aren’t your only gluteus muscles. The gluteus medius and gluteus minimus muscles are smaller muscles that fire when you lift your leg to the side or rotate your leg.

“You can classify muscles as movers or stabilizers and, generally, the gluteus maximus is a mover and the gluteus medius is a stabilizer,” said Josh Hayes, sports medicine program director at Banner Physical Therapy in Gilbert, AZ.

Here’s why your gluteus medius might cause pain

Two factors can contribute to pain caused by your gluteus medius. First, this muscle bends around your hip bone and attaches to your femur—the long bone in your upper leg. “The area where the muscle travels around the bone is under tension when you use your legs,” Hayes said. Women, who tend to have wider pelvises than men, put even more strain on this muscle.

Second, it’s easy for your gluteus medius to become weak. That’s because compared to moving forward, we don’t move side to side or rotate our legs as regularly.

The combination of the pressure on the muscle from the hip bone and its tendency to be weak can lead to hip pain.

Runners and triathletes are prone to gluteus medius problems since their sports require moving in one direction rather than side to side. “Cross-training is essential for these athletes to stay healthy for the long term,” Hayes said.

Your gluteus medius is also responsible for many of the mechanics of your lower leg. So, when your gluteus medius isn’t functioning correctly, it can lead to iliotibial (IT) band syndrome, pain in the front of the knee and other knee injuries. It’s also a likely cause of the pain that used to be called hip bursitis—this pain generally stems from a problem with the gluteus medius, not the hip bursa.

Here’s what you can do to stave off pain

“Ultimately, pain prevention comes down to strengthening this muscle group,” Hayes said. He recommends these movements to build strength:

  • Step from side to side
  • Stand and lift your leg to the side
  • Stand on one leg and focus on holding up the other side of your pelvis
  • Hold your pelvis up and swing your leg back and forth

Here’s when you should seek medical care

Hayes said if your hip pain isn’t improving or is getting worse after two or three weeks, it’s time to see a health care professional for a physical examination. You should also seek expert care if you can’t hold up your pelvis when you stand on one leg, or when your pain affects your ability to do activities you enjoy like running, dancing or walking your dog.

“Often, treating gluteus medius pain is an easy fix for a physical therapist, so it doesn’t hurt to get it taken care of early,” Hayes said. And the sooner you treat it, the more likely you are to prevent other injuries that can stem from weakness or improper function of the gluteus medius.

The bottom line

Your gluteus medius—a lesser-known muscle near your hip—is prone to weakness that can lead to hip and leg problems. Strengthening exercises and physical therapy can help alleviate the pain. If you need to connect with a health care professional who can diagnose and treat your pain, Banner Health can help.

These articles can help you learn more about keeping your joints and muscles healthy:

Orthopedics Physical Therapy