Snapping hip syndrome refers to a popping sound or snapping sensation that sometimes occurs when the hip joint moves. People who do a lot of sports or dance are at higher risk of developing this condition. If the person has no pain, treatment may not always be necessary.

Repetitive strain to the hip may contribute to the development of snapping hip syndrome. It is known as external or internal snapping hip and can occur within different areas of the hip.

Snapping hip syndrome is usually harmless. However, if someone experiences pain or inflammation in the area, a doctor can help them better manage the condition.

Rest and reducing physical activity may resolve the issue for some people, while others may need surgery. Specific exercises, such as iliotibial band stretching, can also strengthen the muscle around the hip.

Keep reading to learn more about snapping hip syndrome, its causes, and treatment.

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Snapping hip syndrome, also known as dancer’s hip or coxa saltans, is a condition where a person feels a snapping sensation or popping sound as the hip joint moves. People may feel or hear the snapping sound when walking, running, sitting, or bending down.

Around 5–10% of people in the United States have the condition, and most have no pain.

In some cases, however, it can cause swelling in the bursae. This is a fluid-filled sac found around the hip, which helps the muscle glide smoothly over the bone.

Types

The different types of snapping hip syndrome relate to the part of the hip the condition affects. The different types are known as:

  • external snapping hip, which occurs on the outside of the hip when the leg moves back and forth
  • internal extra-articular snapping hip, which happens in front and just inside the hip when the leg moves from a bent to a straight position
  • internal intra-articular snapping hip, which occurs inside the hip joint

Tightness in the muscles and tendons associated with the hip is the most common cause of snapping hip syndrome. Adolescent growth spurts, in particular, can cause tightness in the hip’s muscle structures.

The specific muscles and tendons most commonly involved depend on whether the type of snapping hip syndrome is external or internal.

External snapping hip

External snapping hip occurs when the iliotibial band moves over the greater trochanter, creating a snapping sound. The iliotibial band is a thick band of connective tissue that runs from the pelvis to the knee. The greater trochanter refers to the top of the thigh bone and is the widest part of the hip.

The snapping can happen when the muscle flexes, extends, and externally or internally rotates.

Internal snapping hip

Internal snapping hip can occur when the iliopsoas tendon moves over bony projections such as the iliopectineal eminence or the front of the thigh bone. The iliopsoas tendon is the attachment for important hip flexor muscles.

The iliopectineal eminence is where the ilium meets the pubis in the pelvis or the front of the top of the thigh bone.

Snapping hip syndrome can also be due to the following:

  • trauma to the area, usually associated with surgery or injury
  • an individual’s hip area anatomy, such as the distance between bones or muscle and tendon length
  • an inability to relax muscles or tendons adequately

Sometimes doctors do not find the cause of a person’s snapping hip syndrome.

A person has a higher chance of developing snapping hip syndrome if they do sports that require repetitive use of the same muscles, such as soccer, running, and gymnastics.

Dancers are at particularly high risk of snapping hip syndrome. However, they can reduce the possibility of the condition affecting their career by seeking medical help to manage it as early as possible.

Young adults who have experienced a recent growth spurt and females are at higher risk of developing snapping hip syndrome.

Most people do not experience pain with snapping hip syndrome, so they are unlikely to consult a doctor.

Doctors may diagnose snapping hip syndrome following a physical examination, during which they will ask a person questions about their symptoms.

A doctor may also order an X-ray to check for bone or hip problems. Other screening tests include:

  • MRIs to check whether there is a thickening of the iliotibial band or front edge of the gluteus maximus muscle
  • dynamic ultrasonography to check for the snapping of the iliotibial band over the greater trochanter, as well as:
  • iliopsoas bursography to check whether the iliopsoas muscle snaps over the iliacus muscle (a doctor fills the bursa with a dye known as a contrast to show the tendon moving back and forth on a monitor)
  • magnetic resonance arthrography to check for intra-articular hip problems, which commonly occur with internal snapping hip syndrome

Additional tests for snapping hip syndrome will depend on whether the doctor thinks it is the external or internal type.

Test for external type

The test for external snapping hip syndrome involves getting a person to rotate or flex their femur (thigh bone).

The doctor uses Ober’s test to check for tightness in the iliotibial band while the person lies down. The doctor then cycles the person’s knee and hip through flexion and extension to test whether the hip snapping symptom occurs.

Test for internal type

To help diagnose an internal snapping hip, a person lies on their back while the doctor externally rotates and flexes the hip. The doctor extends the affected leg alongside the other leg and checks whether the snap happens at the front of the hip.

To help manage the condition, doctors may recommend the following:

  • resting and modifying physical activity
  • applying ice to the area
  • using anti-inflammatory drugs, such as aspirin or nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs
  • corticosteroid injections, if a person has hip bursitis or inflammation around the hip joint

A physical therapy program may help people manage their symptoms and regain function.

In rare cases, a person may need surgery.

Surgery

Different types of surgery target different causes of snapping hip syndrome.

Surgeons most commonly use hip arthroscopy to operate on a torn labrum. The labrum is the thick cartilage around the hip socket that helps to keep the ball and socket joint aligned.

During arthroscopy, a surgeon inserts a small camera into the hip joint. The image of the inside of the hip joint appears on a monitor. The surgeon uses the image to guide the use of small surgical instruments. Using smaller instruments prevents the need for large cuts such as those used in regular open surgery.

Some people may need open surgery. During standard open surgery, a surgeon makes a cut several centimeters long to access the area in the hip that requires treatment.

The American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons suggests the following exercises, doing 1 to 3 sets of four repetitions on each leg:

Iliotibial band stretch

Standing next to a wall for support, a person crosses the leg closest to the wall behind their other leg. They then lean their hip toward the wall until they feel a stretch on the outside of the hip.

The person holds this stretch for 30 seconds before repeating it on the opposite leg.

Piriformis stretch

A person lies on their back with their knees bent and feet flat on the floor. They cross the foot on the same side as the affected hip over the opposite knee.

The person then clasps their hands behind the thigh of the unaffected leg, pulling the thigh toward them until they feel a stretch in their hip and buttocks.

They hold the stretch for 30 seconds before repeating it on the opposite leg.

Below are some typical questions and answers about snapping hip syndrome.

How serious is it?

Snapping hip syndrome is usually manageable at home and not serious. Most people with the condition do not have associated pain and do not need treatment.

In rare cases where a person needs surgery, they may experience complications, including:

  • weakness
  • infection
  • nerve damage
  • muscle wasting

Does it go away by itself?

Snapping hip syndrome may go away if a person with a mild version of the condition rests and reduces physical activity. If they do not allow their overused hip joint respite, it is unlikely to improve.

How long might it take to recover?

With a physical therapy program, it may be possible to regain typical hip function, without snapping, within 6–12 months. However, this might not be the case for everyone. This depends on the individual, as some might need longer to recover.

Even after recovery, experts advise stretching regularly and making changes to how a person moves to prevent a recurrence.

Snapping hip syndrome is usually a painless condition in which a person feels or hears their hip make a snapping sensation or sound.

Overuse of the hip joint usually causes the condition, and it is common among sports people and dancers.

Most people do not experience pain with this condition and do not require treatment. However, in rare severe cases, surgery may be necessary.