When to heat or chill a strained calf muscle

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When to heat or chill a strained calf muscle

A pulled calf muscle refers to strains within the two muscles, the gastrocnemius and soleus muscles, that are located in the lower back of your leg. When a strain occurs, muscle fibers are torn to some degree.

Strained calf muscles happen when the internal muscles are overstretched from strenuous activities, such as exercising. This is a common injury, especially among athletes and runners. Pulled calf muscles may be chronic from long-term injury or acute from brief overpulling.

We are going to explore the effects of heat and cold therapy when applied to a strained calf muscle in this article.

Strained calf muscle symptoms

Symptoms of a strained calf muscles can vary based on how severe the injury is. Mild strains can leave you with pain and sensations of pulling within the lower half of your leg. Walking is still possible with a mild strain, but it may be uncomfortable. A severe calf strain is a complete tear or rupture of the muscle fibres in the calf muscles.

In this article, we will focus on how to treat mild calf strains. This relatively low-grade injury does not require surgery like a severe strain does, but it is nonetheless painful and can limit your activity.

Other signs of a pulled calf muscle include:

  • Mild swelling
  • Redness
  • Bruising
  • The inability to stand up on the ball of your foot
  • Sharp pain and severe pulling sensations in your calf muscles, which affect your mobility, making you unable to walk

Differentiating an acute injury or chronic pain in your calf

When checking a strained calf muscle, your doctor will also look for symptoms such as swelling and bruising. They may even have you do mild stretches to check how severely strain your calf muscle is.

When deciding whether to use heat or cold to treat your muscle injury, it’s helpful to know if you have an acute or chronic problem. An acute injury is one that comes on rapidly, but is short-lived. Chronic pain, on the other hand, develops slowly over time and can be persistent and long-lasting. The first type usually develops immediately or within hours of an injury while the second can develop due to overuse or repetitive motions. You can also develop chronic injuries when you don’t receive the proper treatment for acute injuries.

To what types of injuries should you apply ice?

Physical therapist Michael Baer of ReboundMD.com, an orthopedics and neurosurgery website, gives us tips on when to ice or heat an injury, as well as some general rules while doing so.

“The best way to understand what type of injuries should be iced is to understand how your body reacts to injuries,” says Baer. “Knowing the difference between an acute injury and a chronic condition helps determine when it’s time for ice or heat.”

Best practice is to apply ice to an acute injury or a new injury. An acute injury, such as a sprain, involves tissue damage and inflammation around the injury site. They are often short-term injuries. Some common acute injuries include:

  • Ankle sprain
  • Knee sprain
  • Muscle or joint sprain
  • Red, hot or swollen body part
  • Acute pain after intense exercise

“When you sprain something, like an ankle, for instance, you damage blood vessels,” says Baer. “When blood vessels are damaged, swelling usually occurs. Applying something cold, whether it be ice or even a bag of frozen vegetables, causes the blood vessels to constrict, reducing the swelling.”

Cold therapy applied on an acute injury immediately helps to reduce pain and swelling because ice is a vasoconstrictor. This means that your blood vessels will narrow and reduce internal bleeding at the original site of the injury.

To treat your injury with cold therapy, place several ice cubes in a thin towel and wrap it tightly closed. Hold the towel against your skin for approximately 10 minutes at a time. You can repeat this process after you have allowed enough time for your skin temperature to return to normal. It’s fine to apply an ice pack several times a day for up to three days after your injury.

If you’re a competitive or recreational runner or frequently participate in other intense physical activities, you may be able to prevent knee injuries by placing an ice pack on them immediately after your workout. This helps to reduce inflammation before it reaches the point of causing chronic pain. Try to choose a cold pack that conforms to the part of your body you need to ice. A bag of frozen peas can work well, too.

When to apply heat therapy on injuries

Typically, heat therapy is a better bet for chronic injuries. Chronic pain indicates that the body has not fully healed, and pain recurs frequently. Some common chronic conditions include:

  • Muscle pain or soreness
  • Stiff joints
  • Arthritis
  • Old/recurring injuries

“Heat therapy does the opposite of what cold therapy does. Unlike cold therapy’s ability to constrict blood vessels, heat allows for our blood vessels to expand and our muscles to relax. Applying heat creates a soothing effect,” says Baer.

Heat is ideal to treat chronic injuries that do not involve inflammation or swelling. It helps to reduce the pain associated with stiff and sore muscles and joints. Placing a heat pack on your affected muscles before you start exercising can reduce the pain you feel currently and prevent new episodes of pain from developing. That is because heat stimulates blood flow and increases the elasticity of the connective tissues in your joints. Additionally, heat can stop a muscle spasm and relax muscles that feel too tight.

It’s important to avoid applying heat to acute injuries with symptoms of inflammation. The reason for this is that heat raises your skin temperature and increases your circulation. You can safely use a heat pack on your skin for approximately 15 minutes. Be sure to have a thick enough layer of clothing or material between the heat pack and your skin so you don’t accidentally burn yourself.

An electric heating pad works well on most types of muscle injuries. However, moist heat tends to work better. For the best results, try using a hot and wet towel. Never go to bed with a heat pack still on your skin, no matter which type you prefer to use. Not only will your skin become much too warm, but you also run the risk of starting a fire with the electric type of heating pad.

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:

  • Warm up before any sport or intense activity. Gradually warm up your body by doing five to 10 minutes of walking or biking.
  • Cool down and stretch after intense activity. Gradually cool down with about five minutes of easy jogging, walking, or biking and five minutes of stretches.
  • Avoid any sport or intense activity that you are not in condition to do.

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!

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