The large muscles and tendons in the hip sometimes become so tight that they pop and make snapping sounds when they move over the bony surfaces of the hip joint. As long as it doesn't hurt, it's not considered a serious problem and probably doesn't need medical attention. It can, however cause painful swelling of the hip bursae, which are the little fluid-filled sacs that add cushion in the hip. Their job is to be the pain-free buffer zone between bones and the muscles and tendons that rub over them. When they're unable to do this, they become painful and swollen, causing a condition called bursitis.
Snapping hip can be felt in the back or front of the joint. There is a large tendon in the front of the hip that moves back and forth over the top of the thighbone from front to side. There is a smaller tendon in front of the hip that can catch on the bony structures as well. The hamstring muscle can catch on the "sit" bones in the back of the hip. Snapping in any of these three places would be felt and/or heard.
A more serious cause of snapping hip may be damaged cartilage. Torn cartilage catching on the inner structures of the hip joint can become extremely painful to the point of no longer being able to walk. Pain that interferes with daily living should be addressed by a doctor. Earlier treatment may put off surgery or help avoid it altogether, although every patient is different.
Athletes of any age who participate in repetitive hip-bending activities may be prone to snapping hip, but adolescent athletes are especially prone because muscles can be tight during growth years. Dancers are also particularly prone to the condition. An orthopedic doctor specializing in the hip area or sports medicine has a lot of experience helping patients with this condition. To properly diagnose it, he or she will want to know what activities bring the pain on, will take a health history, and will probably x-ray the area to rule out bone problems.
Physical therapy, special stretches, anti-inflammatory medication, injections, activity modification, rest, and ice are all common nonsurgical treatments to alleviate pain associated with snapping hip issues. Surgery may be necessary if these treatments fail or if cartilage needs to be repaired.