A calf muscle strain is a partial or complete tear of the small fibers of the muscles. The calf muscles are located in the back of your lower leg.
A calf muscle strain can be caused by:
- Stretching the calf muscles beyond the amount of tension they can withstand
- Suddenly putting stress on the calf muscles when they are not ready for the stress
- Using the calf muscles too much on a certain day
- A direct blow to the calf muscles
Factors that increase your chance of developing a calf muscle strain:
- Participation in sports that require bursts of speed. This includes track sports like running, hurdles, or long jump. Other sports include basketball, soccer, football, or rugby.
- Previous strain or injury to the area.
- Muscle fatigue.
- Tight calf muscles.
- Poor conditioning.
Symptoms may include:
- Pain and tenderness in the calf
- Stiffness in the calf muscles
- Weakness of the calf muscles
- Pain when pushing off the foot or standing on tiptoe
- Bruising on the calf
- Popping sensation as the muscle tears
The doctor will ask about your symptoms and medical history. A physical exam will be done.
Most calf muscle strains can be diagnosed with a physical exam. Your doctor may want images of the area if severe damage is suspected. Images may be taken with MRI or ultrasound.
Muscle strains are graded according to their severity:
- Grade 1—Some stretching with micro-tearing of muscle fibers.
- Grade 2—Partial tearing of muscle fibers.
- Grade 3—Complete tearing of muscle fibers. This may also be called a rupture or avulsion.
Talk with your doctor about the best treatment plan for you. Recovery time ranges depending on the grade of your injury. Treatment steps may include:
Your muscle will need time to heal. Avoid activities that place extra stress on these muscles:
- Do not do activities that cause pain. This includes running, jumping, and weight lifting using the leg muscles.
- If normal walking hurts, shorten your stride.
- Do not play sports until your doctor has said it is safe to do so.
Apply an ice or a cold pack to the area for 15-20 minutes, four times a day, for several days after the injury. Do not apply the ice directly to your skin. Wrap the ice or cold pack in a towel.
To manage pain, your doctor may recommend:
- Over-the-counter medication, such as aspirin , ibuprofen , or acetaminophen
- Topical pain medication—creams or patches that are applied to the skin
- Prescription pain relievers
Compression can help prevent more swelling. Your doctor may recommend an elastic compression bandage around your calf. Be careful not to wrap the bandage too tight.
Elevation can also help keep swelling down. Keep your leg higher than your heart as much as possible for the first 24 hours or so. A couple of days of elevation might be recommended for severe strains.
Use heat only when you are returning to physical activity. Heat may then be used before stretching or getting ready to play sports to help loosen the muscle.
When the acute pain is gone, start gentle stretching as recommended. Stay within pain limits. Hold each stretch for about 10 seconds and repeat six times. Stretch several times a day.
Begin strengthening exercises for your muscles as recommended.
You may be referred to for physical therapy
If you are diagnosed with a calf muscle strain, follow your doctor's instructions .
To reduce the chance of calf muscle strain:
- Keep your calf muscles strong and flexible, so they can absorb the energy of sudden physical stress
- Learn the proper technique for exercise and sporting activities to decrease stress on all your muscles
- Reviewer: Michael Woods, MD
- Review Date: 02/2014 -
- Update Date: 03/18/2013 -