A gastrocnemius (gastroc for short) strain or a calf strain, is an injury to the calf muscle in the back of the leg. Like any muscle strain, it occurs when the muscle has been stretched beyond its threshold. This stretching results in a partial or total tear with the muscle fibers. Total tears in the gastrocnemius are not common. When the gastroc is stretched too far the breaking point typically occurs at the tendon – referred to as the Achilles tendon.
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The gastrocnemius is made of two muscle bellies, the medial (inside) and lateral (outside) head. These muscles are just below to the back of your knee. The muscle bellies are attached to the heel (calcaneus) via the Achilles tendon.
The gastrocnemius is usually injured during sports activities that require quick acceleration from a stationary position. For example, when someone is playing tennis and lunges towards a ball with their racket. This type of movement causes a rapid and sudden stretch of the gastroc while it is also contracted. The combination of lengthening and contraction of the gastroc is what pushes muscle fibers beyond their threshold, causes micro tearing and ultimately an injury.
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Most people will know they have a gastroc strain because their calf will be sore. The source of pain is usually the best indicator of the injury. Other movements that can be helpful for indication of a gastroc strain include but are not limited to: pain when pointing your toes, painful walking and pain with a gastrocnemius stretch like standing on a incline or the a common calf stretch pictured below. Hold the stretch for 30 seconds, 3x.
Gastrocnemius injuries require rest to heal. Avoiding running and sports activities are important. Gentle stretching in a pain free range and soft tissue mobilization of the injured site are helpful for healing during the acute phase. In the subacute phase, eccentric strengthening exercises, again in a pain free range, can help improve circulation to the injured area and improve integrity of the gastrocnemius muscle fibers.
You should go the doctor immediately if you are unable to weight bear on your injured leg, struggle walking or are unable to point your toes. This can be an indication of a serious injury like a full rupture that will require medical attention.
For more minor injuries (grade I-II) your symptoms should decrease and ultimately resolve in 2-4 weeks.
If you are still having calf pain after the timeline mentioned, medical attention may also be needed from your physician or physical therapist.
A combination of stretching and exercise/strength training is helpful for minimizing the risk of future gastrocnemius injuries. You want to have flexibility in your gastroc so that the tissue can quickly stretch for rapid movements/bursts of acceleration like the tennis scenario above.
Additionally strengthening exercises such as heel raises, toe walking and single leg balance training can improve the integrity of the gastroc muscle fibers and make them more resilient to loads which will in turn reduce your injury risk.
If you have a strain in your calf or a pulled muscle behind the knee, the Jacksonville Orthopaedic Institute can help. To schedule an appointment with a JOI Orthopedic and Sports Medicine Specialist, call (904)JOI-2000, schedule online, or click the link below. To see a JOI Rehab Physical Therapist in 1 of our 12 locations, call (904)858-7045.