Hip pain is hard to ignore whether you’re playing sports or just doing your daily activities. It’s pretty hard to do anything that involves your lower body without moving your hips, and depending on the cause of your pain, even simple, small movements can be sore.
But more intense activities like walking upstairs can make it worse. If you live in a house with stairs or an apartment on a higher floor, you may know all about it!
But before you can begin to treat it, you need to know why you have hip pain walking upstairs.
There are 3 common causes that we’ll be talking about today. Although these are common, it doesn’t necessarily mean that your hip pain is only caused by one of these, so you may have to consult your doctor to find out more if your symptoms are different.
Let’s look at why your hips may be painful when walking upstairs.
3 Causes of Hip Pain
There are many possible causes of hip pain. However, to figure it out, pay attention as you’re going upstairs to where you feel the pain, the intensity of the pain, and if it’s aching, sharp, or burning.
This may help you identify if it’s something a little more serious—like a hip fracture—or one of the following 3 common causes of hip pain.
In your hip, you have two major fluid-filled sacs called bursae, which help cushion and reduce friction between your bones, muscles, ligaments, and tendons around the joints.
This ensures that tendons, ligaments, and muscles glide smoothly over the bone when you move.
The iliopsoas bursa is located on the inside of the hip, underneath your iliopsoas muscle in front of the hip. The other fluid-filled sac is known as the trochanteric bursa, and this covers the bony knob of your hip.
When the bursa becomes irritated and swollen, the surrounding soft tissue will most likely become tender to the touch and painful.
If you have hip bursitis, you may experience pain in the front of the hip that can radiate into the front of your thigh or deep in the groin region.
The onset of pain may be gradual, and you’ll notice that your hip feels stiff in the morning, but that subsides throughout the day.
Your hip will be sensitive to touch, and you may find that you have a sudden and sharp increase in pain when you go upstairs or lie down on the affected hip.
The pain can worsen throughout the day after prolonged repetitive hip movements, which could lead to you limping or taking smaller steps.
In most cases, the pain will increase after sleeping and when you get up from a seated position after sitting for a while.
If your trochanteric bursa is inflamed, you’ll experience pain that can be sharp and intense on the outside of your hip or thigh. In some cases, the pain can radiate into your buttocks.
The pain of bursitis can be sharp and intense at first, but it can feel more like a dull ache spread across a large area of your hip after a few days.
Several factors can cause hip bursitis, but the main cause is overuse of the joint.
Repetitive movements can place pressure on or cause friction between the bursa and the surrounding soft tissue.
This can often be caused by a tight iliotibial band or a tight hamstring, leading to the bursa becoming irritated and inflamed.
Accidentally bumping your hip onto a hard surface or falling and landing on the outside of the hip can lead to the bursa sac becoming inflamed. This may cause you to experience traumatic hip bursitis.
Being overweight will place excessive strain on your hip joint and the soft tissue around it, contributing to your developing hip bursitis.
Certain medical conditions—diabetes and hypothyroidism—can also increase your risk of developing bursitis.
If you’re experiencing hip bursitis, try and rest your hip as much as possible and avoid activities that make the symptoms worse.
You can try using a cane, walking stick, or crutch to help you reduce the pressure that’s placed on the hip when you need to walk or bend. Make sure you wear supportive shoes.
Apply ice to your hip every 2 to 4 hours for 10 to 20 minutes to alleviate pain and reduce swelling and inflammation. You can also take over-the-counter non-steroidal anti-inflammatories as needed.
Depending on the severity of your pain, your doctor may recommend either physical therapy or a steroid injection to relieve the symptoms of hip bursitis.
Arthritis is a progressive condition that causes the cartilage in the hip joint to break down, exposing the bone surfaces of the joint. This causes the joint bones to grind against each other, destroying the joint.
Any movement involving the hip causes the bones to rub against each other, leading to inflammation, tenderness, pain, and stiffness. This can restrict your range of movement and limit your ability to move freely.
But arthritis can also cause the edges of the hip bone to change shape, leading to bone spurs developing.
Several types of arthritis can affect the hip joint, and these include:
- Psoriatic arthritis
- Rheumatoid arthritis (RA)
- Avascular necrosis
- Post-traumatic hip arthritis
The most common symptoms of arthritis in the hip—regardless of the type of arthritis—include pain in the hip joint that can radiate into your groin, down the inside of your leg, or into your buttocks.
In some cases, you can also experience knee pain on the inside of your knee.
Your hip joint may feel as though it’s locked or sticking, and it may also make a grinding noise when you move. The stiffness in the hip can make it difficult to walk up or down stairs, bend over, or get in or out of a chair when you sit.
Walking will become difficult, and you’ll find that you may need to decrease the distance as the pain can become worse.
Sleeping at night could be difficult, as the pain won’t let you stay in one position for very long, or it may wake you up from your sleep.
The pain of arthritis comes and goes, with pain that intensifies with vigorous or extended activity.
Depending on the type of arthritis affecting your hip, you may find that the affected leg becomes slightly shorter than your other leg. This can contribute to a limited range of motion that can affect your everyday activities.
A number of factors can cause arthritis, and it varies from person to person. These factors may include:
Anatomic Structure of the Hip
The structure of the bones that form the hip joint can be irregularly shaped and this may cause impingement or hip dysplasia. Both conditions can place abnormal stress on the cartilage, causing excess wear and tear.
Our daily activities like walking, bending, sitting, and climbing stairs require repetitive motions that can place your hip and cartilage under excessive stress.
This can cause your cartilage to break down over time and increase your risk of developing arthritis.
An injury to your hip from a fall can cause labral tears or even a hip fracture, increasing your risk of developing arthritis years later.
Excess weight places your hip joints under excessive stress, which increases wear and tear on the joint.
But research has shown that increased body weight leads to increased inflammation throughout the body.
The increased stress and inflammation levels will put you at a higher risk of developing arthritis.
Certain medical conditions like scleroderma, lupus, and fibromyalgia can cause you to develop hip arthritis.
As we get older, the cartilage in the hips becomes more worn out and eventually breaks down until there’s bone-on-bone rubbing in the hip.
With that being said, the severity of the condition and pain will vary from one person to the next.
If you think you have arthritis, make an appointment with your doctor. They’ll be able to diagnose the type of arthritis and put a treatment plan together for the specific condition.
Although there’s no cure for arthritis, you can manage the symptoms, which will help reduce painful flare-ups.
Avoid activities that aggravate the hip joints and replace high-impact activities like running with low-impact ones like swimming and cycling. While it may seem counter-intuitive, remaining physically active can help reduce the symptoms and flare-ups.
Maintaining a healthy weight will reduce the amount of strain placed on the hip joint and reduce inflammation throughout the body.
Your doctor may recommend physical therapy, and you’ll be given a series of exercises that can help improve your mobility, flexibility, and strength in the hip.
You may also have to use a walking aid such as a cane, crutch, or walker to help support and reduce the pressure on the hip joint.
You can also take over-the-counter pain medications like ibuprofen to alleviate pain and reduce inflammation.
Your doctor may recommend steroid injections to alleviate the symptoms in severe cases.
Tendinopathy is the chronic form of tendonitis when the tendons become inflamed and painful. The tendons are strong bands of connective tissue that connect the muscles to the bones.
As you go through your daily activities, the tendons and muscles in your hips are placed under strain as they support the pelvis and hips.
As this happens daily, the tendons don’t get time to recover in between, which can lead to an overuse injury.
There are two common forms of tendonitis/tendinopathy. Hip flexor tendinitis or tendinopathy—also called iliopsoas tendonitis—affects the front of the hip’s tendons that connect to your hip flexors.
Gluteal tendinopathy, the most common, affects one or more of the tendons in the buttocks that connect to the gluteal muscles.
The main symptom of tendinopathy or tendonitis is pain in the hip. It can develop gradually, and you may experience tenderness at the hip before it becomes full-blown pain.
The pain may worsen at night or when you put pressure on the area of the hip that’s affected. The location of the pain depends on which type of tendonitis you have.
Gluteal tendinopathy may affect the tendons in the buttocks, but it presents with pain in the side of the hip—the lateral hip or the outer hip.
If you have hip flexor tendinopathy, you will feel pain in the hip flexors at the front of the hip instead of the side.
Pain will most likely be accompanied by stiffness in the joint and limited mobility. Stiffness is usually worse in the mornings or when you get up after being seated for a long time.
You may also notice swelling in the affected tendon area, and the skin over the joint may be red and tender to the touch.
The pain may worsen when you walk, run, or do other activities. You may also notice that there’s a loss of strength in the hip muscles.
Both hip flexor tendinopathy and gluteal tendinopathy often occur due to overuse of the joints and tendons.
As your hip tendons are placed under strain every day when you walk, run, stand, bend, or lean, it’s easy to develop tendonitis in these tendons.
Hip tendonitis is more common in those who participate in high levels of activities, especially sports like running, cycling, heavy weightlifting, and other high-intensity sports that involve jumping or high impacts.
Weakness in the hip flexors and gluteal muscles can lead to inflammation in the tendons over time, which may cause you to experience hip tendinopathy.
Obesity or excess weight can increase your chances of developing hip tendinopathy by placing the tendons under excess pressure.
If you have lower back pain, studies suggest that you’re more likely to develop hip tendinopathy as you may alter your gait to accommodate your back pain. This can cause the hip tendons to become irritated and inflamed.
Hip tendonitis is more common in women than men, and it’s also more common in people over the age of 40.
The first step to treating hip pain is to stop participating in activities that trigger the hip pain. However, as daily activity is often the trigger for hip tendinopathy, you may need to take more frequent rests instead of stopping the activity altogether.
You should switch out high-intensity sports and those that place strain on the hip joint—like running and cycling—with low-intensity ones that affect the hips less, like swimming and jumping rope.
Apply ice to the affected area for 10 to 20 minutes, 3 to 4 times a day. Make sure to wrap the ice pack in a cloth before applying it to the skin.
You can take over-the-counter pain medication—ibuprofen or naproxen—to manage the pain associated with hip tendinopathy.
A physiotherapist will be able to give you exercises to improve your flexibility and lessen the pain. Be sure to wear high-quality shoes for hip pain as well.
General Tips to Prevent Hip Pain
There are various things you can do to try and prevent hip pain from occurring. You should maintain a healthy weight to prevent excess strain on the hip joints and tendons.
This should be achieved by combining a healthy diet and exercise, although you should be careful about what exercise you choose to do.
Try to switch high-impact, high-intensity exercises that strain the hip joint with low-impact exercises. Also, make sure to warm up effectively before doing a workout.
If you find that light, low-impact activity aggravates your hip pain; you should work on developing core and hip strength with a rehabilitation program before undertaking exercise.
Wearing shoes with appropriate arch support and shock-absorbing cushioning will help to reduce strain on the hip joints and tendons.
It may help to sleep with a pillow between your knees if you sleep on your side—your uninjured side—or with a pillow underneath your knees if you sleep on your back.
If you need to walk upstairs, we advise taking each stair one at a time. It may take longer to get up the stairs, but it will keep your pain in check and prevent it from getting worse.