Also called the gastrocnemius, calf muscles are in the back of your lower leg and help you perform almost every activity, including running, walking, jumping, climbing, and so on. Overuse or other factors can make these muscles to become sore and painful. It is a good idea to talk to your doctor if you fail to pinpoint the underlying cause of your calf pain. Let’s find out more about it.
What Causes Calf Muscle Pain?
You are likely to have a torn or pulled calf muscle if your pain develops suddenly during activity. Also called a calf pull or a calf strain, it occurs when you stretch the muscles in your lower leg beyond their capability. This overstretching can cause micro-tears in those muscle fibers and cause severe pain. Sometimes, the pain becomes unbearable, which usually happens when you have a complete rupture of the muscle fibers. Here are some specific causes.
1. Muscle Cramp
Your pain could be the result of a cramp or spasm in your calf muscle. This is usually not that severe and the discomfort goes away without treatment. You may develop a bruise if the involuntary contraction is strong.
2. Calf Strain
Just like an Achilles tendon tear, a calf strain can cause severe pain in the back of your leg. The pain is quite sharp and affects the lower leg only. There may also be swelling along with bruising over your calf muscle. When you have a calf strain, it will become difficult to put weight on the affected leg. It is also hard to stand on your toes in this situation.
If you are suffering from edema, there will be swelling in your legs. That swelling can cause soreness that may lead to calf muscle pain. If you have not suffered a muscle strain and there is swelling in your calves, you should see your doctor immediately to identify the underlying cause. It is important because swelling in your calf could be due to a blood clot in your legs – the condition is known as deep vein thrombosis (DVT). It requires quick medical attention.
When your body is dehydrated, you are likely to experience muscle cramps. These cramps can affect your calf muscles as well. That involuntary contraction of muscles in the calf can cause intense pain. There may also be soreness even when the muscle has relaxed. That usually happens because dehydration can cause an electrolyte imbalance, which directly affects the muscle and nerve function. Increasing your intake of water may help resolve the issue.
5. Trapped Nerve
Pain in your calf could be the result of compression of the nerves in the lower leg. If nerve compression is the cause of your calf pain, you may also have numbness or pins and needles in the calf region. Sometimes, the compression is in your lower back. Be sure to talk to your doctor to make a correct diagnosis.
6. Muscle Imbalance
Calm muscle tightness and weakness can also lead to calf muscle pain. If your muscles are weak, they tend to tire quickly, which in turn will cause pain. Trying some strengthening exercises will correct muscle imbalance and greatly help reduce the pain.
7. Peripheral Vascular Disease
Sometimes called peripheral artery disease, peripheral vascular disease refers to the narrowing in the arteries that directly affects the flow of blood. You are likely to develop this condition if you smoke or have diabetes, hypertension, or high cholesterol. Sometimes, there may be a change in the color of your foot and lower leg. Seek immediate medical attention in this case.
How to Deal with It
In order to deal with your calf muscle pain, you should start by following the RICE technique. It means that you should rest your leg, apply cold compresses to the affected area, use some form of compression, and keep your leg elevated for some time to reduce swelling. Anti-inflammatory medications are also available to help reduce pain and swelling.
You may also have to work with a physical therapist to restore function of your calf. For better recovery, you should keep the following points in mind:
- Be sure to rest the muscle as much as possible. You should not engage in activities that cause pain.
- Consider taping the calf to help deal with pain. Compression can always help alleviate pain and swelling.
- Work with your physical therapist to learn stretching and strengthening exercises. Regular exercise will help improve range of motion and lower your risk of having future calf injury.
- Make use of a foam roller to massage the area and improve blood flow to the area. This will help accelerate recovery.
- Try strengthening exercises. A simple exercise is to hook a resistance band under your toes and then press down on it using light resistance. Now, point your foot down to feel a light stretch. Do at least 10 reps and do it 5-10 times to see results.
When Can You Return to Normal Activity?
It is important to bear in mind that you should never underestimate the importance of working with a physiotherapist because rehab will help you return to your regular activities as quickly as possible. Experts can also help lower your risk of developing a chronic injury. You should return to your sport only if you meet the following conditions:
- Your physician says you can return to your sport.
- You experience no pain when walking or running.
- You have no swelling in your leg.
- You notice no change in full range of motion in the injured leg.
- You can run gently without limping or experiencing pain.
- You can sprint in a straight line with ease.
- You experience no pain when jumping on both legs.