Your calf muscle is actually two muscles, the gastrocnemius muscle and the soleus muscle. These muscles can be injured if they get overstretched.
Injury to a calf muscle can range from a strain or pull that you can treat at home to a more serious tear that may need a doctor's care.
What causes a calf muscle injury?
A calf injury is most often caused during sports where you need to push off with your foot quickly for a sudden burst of speed. Examples include tennis, baseball, soccer, racquetball, and even simple running.
The sudden movement can stress the calf muscle, stretching it beyond its normal limits. This can happen suddenly (acute injury) or over time (overuse injury).
What are the symptoms?
The symptoms depend on how badly you have injured the muscle.
If the injury is only a strain, you may feel a strong pulling in your lower leg. It may be uncomfortable. You may have a twinge of pain.
More serious muscle tears will cause very sharp pain and leave you barely able to walk.
How do you treat a calf muscle injury?
Most calf muscle strains can be treated at home:
- Rest your injured leg. Take it easy for a day or two.
- Put ice or a cold pack on the sore muscle for 10 to 20 minutes at a time to stop swelling. Put a thin cloth between the ice pack and your skin. Try to do this every 1 to 2 hours for the next 3 days (when you are awake) or until the swelling goes down.
- After 2 or 3 days, you can try alternating cold with heat. To use heat, 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.
- Wrap your lower leg with an elastic bandage (such as a Tensor 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.
- Prop up the leg on a pillow when you ice it or anytime you sit or lie down during the next 3 days. Try to keep it above the level of your heart. This will help reduce swelling.
- 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.
- Don't do anything that makes the pain worse. Return to exercise gradually as you feel better.
For more serious injuries, treatment may include physiotherapy 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:
- Warm up. Before any sport or intense activity, gradually warm up your body by doing 5 to 10 minutes of walking or biking.
- Cool down and stretch. After intense activity, gradually cool down with about 5 minutes of easy jogging, walking, or biking, and 5 minutes of stretches.
- Avoid any sport or intense activity that you are not in condition to do.
Current as of: June 26, 2019
Author: Healthwise Staff
Medical Review: E. Gregory Thompson, MD - Internal Medicine
Adam Husney, MD - Family Medicine
Kathleen Romito, MD - Family Medicine
Patrick J. McMahon, MD - Orthopedic Surgery, Sports Medicine