By Tracy Wilcox, PTA, LAT
Anatomy of the Calf
The calf is composed of two muscles: the gastrocnemius and the soleus. The gastrocnemius is the big muscle at the back of the lower leg. The soleus is the smaller of the two and lies underneath the gastrocnemius. Both muscles contract to produce ‘plantar flexion,’ which is the motion that allows you to point your toes. A calf strain is the tearing of one of these muscles.
Causes of Calf Strains
Calf strains usually occur either due to a sudden pushing off the movement or excessive and forced over-stretching of the muscles. This is more likely to occur from a sudden explosive change of direction that causes a sudden sharp pain at the back of the leg when running, sprinting, or lunging. This injury is common in running sports that require quick acceleration of changes in direction. A calf strain is also referred to as “Tennis Leg” because it is common among tennis players. It usually occurs in people between the ages of 30–45.
Symptoms of a Calf Strain
Symptoms of a calf strain vary significantly depending on how bad your injury is. A mild strain may feel more like an ache during or after exercise. With a more severe calf strain, you will feel a sudden sharp pain in the lower leg’s back, and there is usually tenderness on the calf muscle, especially on the inner side. You may have difficulty contracting the muscle or standing on tiptoe, and there may be pain, swelling, or bruising in the calf muscle.
Muscle strains are graded as mild, moderate, and severe. The more severe the strain, the longer the time to recover.
- First Degree (Mild): This injury is the most common and usually the most minor. This injury is a ‘pulled muscle’ with a structural disruption of less than 5 percent. With a first-degree injury, you can expect to be back to sports within 1 to 3 weeks.
- Second Degree (Moderate). This injury consists of a more significant but still incomplete muscle tear. This is a partial muscle tear and requires 3 to 6 weeks of rest and recovery before you can return to full activity.
- Third Degree (Severe). This injury results in the complete tearing of the muscle-tendon unit. A third-degree muscle strain can take many weeks or months to heal fully.
Treatment of a Calf Strain
Immediate treatment for a calf strain includes PRICE:
- Protect – Stop playing or running to prevent further damage. A compressive walking boot can permit pain-free walking and expedite healing in more severe cases.
- Rest – in the early acute stage, complete rest is best. Once the acute phase has passed, active rest (walking) may be more beneficial than complete rest. As a general rule of thumb, any activity that elicits pain at or near the injured site may be causing further injury and will only delay your recovery.
- Ice – can be used to control the pain.
- Compression – a compression bandage or calf support can be used to support the muscle and reduce swelling
- Elevation – can be used to decrease the swelling.
It is recommended for more severe calf strains of a grade 2 or 3. You follow up with your physician, who can rule out severe damage and refer you to physical therapy when appropriate. If attending PT at JOI, you will work with highly qualified physical therapists, physical therapist assistants, and athletic trainers to return you to your previous function level. A good way to prevent strains to the calf muscles is to stretch them regularly before performing sports or activities.
The therapists at JOI have extensive knowledge of treating all patients, from those with a sedentary lifestyle, to parents chasing kids, to weekend warriors, to professional athletes.
For physical therapy for a calf strain, please call 904-858-7045.
Related Articles: Hamstring Strain and Quadriceps Injuries.
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Author: Tracy Wilcox, PTA, LAT