Having a strong calf muscle in each leg is hugely important. Not only do strong calf muscles help athletes run faster, longer and jump higher, but they help everyone in day-to-day activities by absorbing loads of force and providing support to the lower half of our body. Your calf muscles should definitely be not overlooked when weight training, exercising or stretching!
The calf muscle is actually quite simple and made up of two muscles: the gastrocnemius muscle and the soleus muscle. When these two muscles are weak, overstretching can occur, causing injuries to these muscles. Injuries to the calf muscle can range from a strain or pull, and some calf injuries can be treated at home while more serious tears may need a doctor’s assistance.
In this article, we look into the causes and symptoms of a calf strain. Most importantly, we will show how you can properly treat your injured calf muscle so that you can return to your favourite sport or activity
What causes a calf muscle injury?
A calf injury often occurs while playing sports that really work the foot and the legs. These sports include tennis, baseball, soccer, gymnastics and even running. Sudden movements stretch the leg muscles beyond their normal limits and can cause stress to the calf muscles. Some calf injuries happen suddenly, although some can happen overtime due to overuse of the legs.
A calf strain is an injury where either the gastrocnemius or soleus muscle becomes torn. Tearing of the muscle fibers occurs when a muscle is over-strained. If the strains are less severe, the muscle remains intact, but if the strains are more severe, then it can cause a complete tear of the muscle, leading to a loss of function. Calf strains are usually just minor tears of some muscle fibers, with most of the muscle tissue remaining intact.
What are the symptoms of a calf strain?
The symptoms of a calf strain depend on how badly the muscle has been injured. Typically, individuals who sustain a calf strain experience a sudden, sharp pain in the back of the leg. The most common muscle to injure when a calf strain occurs is the medial gastrocnemius, which is located on the inner side of the back of the leg. The injury usually occurs just above the midpoint of the leg, between the knee and ankle. When a muscle strain occurs, this area of the calf becomes tender and swollen. You may feel a strong and uncomfortable pulling in your lower leg. You may have a twinge of pain every now and then; more serious muscle tears will cause very sharp pain and walking can become very difficult.
A doctor can diagnose a pulled calf muscle by carrying out a physical examination, during which they will check for swelling, bruising and redness. They may also ask the person to describe any recent changes to their regular physical activity routine.
Muscle injuries fall into three broad categories, or “grades”, based on the severity of a person’s symptoms and the extent of the muscle damage.
Grade 1 (mild)
Grade 1 injuries cause minimal muscle damage, although there may be a sharp pain at the time of the injury. This type of injury carries a low risk of long term complications.
Grade 2 (moderate)
Grade 2 injuries cause moderate muscle damage, and people with this category of muscle injury may have difficulty walking. They will often experience a sharp pain that worsens when they flex or extend their foot.
Grade 3 (severe)
A grade 3 injury is a complete tear of the muscle, and it can cause significant bruising and swelling in the calf.
How do you treat calf strains?
Most calf muscle strains can be treated at home. Below are eight ways to treat calf strains:
1. Rest your injured leg for about a day or two. It is important to rest following the injury to allow the injured muscle to heal properly. The pain will help you determine the amount of activity you’re able to do. Activities that cause or worsen the symptoms should be avoided.
2. Put an ice pack on the sore muscle, with a thin cloth between the pack and your skin, for 10 to 20 minutes at a time to stop swelling. Try to do this every one to two hours for the next three days (when you are awake) or until the swelling goes down.
3. After two or three days, you can try alternating cold therapy with heat therapy. To use heat therapy, put a warm water bottle, a heating pad set on low or a warm cloth on your calf. Do not go to sleep with a heating pad on your skin
4. Wrap your lower leg with an elastic bandage (such as an ACE™ wrap) to help decrease swelling. Don’t wrap it too tightly, since this can cause more swelling below the affected area. Loosen the bandage if it gets too tight. Signs that the bandage is too tight include numbness, tingling, increased pain, coolness or swelling in the area below the bandage.
5. Prop the leg up on a pillow when you ice it, or any time you sit or lie down during the next three days. Try to keep it above the level of your heart, as this will help reduce swelling.
6. Be safe with medicines – read and follow all instructions on the label. If the doctor gave you a prescription medicine for pain, take it as prescribed. If you are not taking a prescription pain medicine, ask your doctor if you can take an over-the-counter medicine.
7. Don’t do anything that makes the pain worse. Return to exercise gradually as you feel better.
8. For more serious injuries, treatment may include physical therapy or surgery.
How can you prevent calf muscle injuries?
Most calf muscle injuries occur during sports. If you had a calf muscle problem in the past, it is especially important to try to prevent another injury. When you exercise, try to:
1. Warm up – Before any sport or intense activity, gradually warm up your body by doing five to 10 minutes of walking or biking.
2. Cool down and stretch – After doing an intense activity, gradually cool down with about five minutes of easy jogging, walking or biking, and five minutes of stretches.
3. Avoid any sport or intense activity that you are not in condition to do.
Most people who have a pulled calf muscle will not need surgery. Resting the injured leg and keeping it elevated can help speed up the recovery process.
People should wait until their calf muscle heals completely before resuming their regular physical activities.
Using the muscle before it heals can result in the initial injury taking longer to heal. In some cases, it can even cause a second injury.
When to see a doctor
Without treatment, a pulled calf muscle may recur or worsen over time. Damaged muscle fibers can turn into thick scar tissue through a process called fibrosis. Scar tissue that forms between healthy muscle fibers can reduce muscle strength and flexibility.
People may wish to consider seeking medical attention for a pulled calf muscle if they:
- Recently sustained another significant injury.
- Are having difficulty walking.
- Are finding at-home treatments, such as rest, applying an ice pack or using OTC pain relievers, ineffective.
Got a question or anything I can help with? My name is Steve Stretton, and I’m the owner and manager at Gelpacks.com. You can drop me a line here. Good luck!