Injury Tip Sheet: Calf Strain
Learn what you need to know to help treat and prevent this common leg injury.
Kathy Weber, M.D., M.S.
Daphne R. Scott, PT, Dsc
- Strains and sprains are the most common causes of low back pain
- Sprains and strains are the most common workplace injury in the United States
- Symptoms and treatment for both strains and sprains are often the same
What you need to know
What is a calf strain?
- The calf muscles form the Achilles tendon and attach to the heel and help propel us forward with walking and running. When standing still, the calf muscle allows us to rise up on to our toes. This muscle is particularly important during running and jumping activities.
- The calf muscles are made of two major muscles, the gastrocnemius and the soleus. A calf strain is when one of these muscles is stretched beyond its capacity or is partially torn.
Signs & symptoms
- Pain or tightness in the calf muscle
- Mild swelling, tenderness, and tightness in the calf
- Pain that decreases with rest and increases with activity, especially when pushing off from the toes
- In severe tears you may be able to hear a popping or tear
When should I see a doctor or other professional?
- You should see a doctor when there is persist swelling, pain, dysfunction, or if a rash or fever develops
- If the strain does not improve after a couple of weeks of self-treatment
- Your physician may recommend immobilization for a short time period
- Severe strains may require physical therapy and in very rare cases surgery
- Overuse of the calf muscle without proper conditioning or recovery time
- Sudden, explosive demands on the calf that may strain or tear the muscle such as when a sprinter leaves the starting block
- In rare cases, strains can be caused by direct blows or trauma to the calf
- Running on uneven ground or hills
- Athletes who depend on large, explosive leg action such as hurdlers
- Working out with inadequate cushioning and foot and arch support
- People with any muscle imbalances or who have improper running mechanics
What you can do
- Stretch and warm up prior to exercising to loosen muscles
- Returning to your sport after an injury: proper warm-up and cool-down including stretching and ice after workouts to help boost recovery
- For women who often wear high heels, stretching is particularly important
- Increase your workout intensity slowly and allow proper recovery time
- Wear footwear that is appropriate for the activity that you are participating in
Recommendations for treatment and rehab
- Treatment for muscle strain includes RICE treatment (rest, ice, compression, elevation)
- If appropriate, an over-the-counter anti-inflammatory medication maybe helpful to help reduce swelling and manage the pain
- After the initial injury, typically a few days, the use of heat will help improve blood flow and relax the muscles. Heat is not recommended immediately following a calf strain or tear
- You can also wrap the calf in an ACE bandage for additional support but should not be wrapped too tightly to prevent blood flow or increase the risk of a blood clot.
- Pain-free stretching the calf muscles regularly maintains muscle flexibility
What can I do to stay active?
- Work with your physician on what activities you can and can not do during the healing process
- Typically participate in activities that do not increase or reproduce the calf pain
- Use of the stationary bike and swimming, only if pain-free, are all lower impact activities that can allow for exercise without aggravating the injury.
- Higher impact activities such as running will need to be avoided until the calf injury has healed. Returning to activity to soon increases risk for re-injury or worsening the injury (i.e. strain develops into a tear)
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