The calf consists of three major muscles – two gastrocnemius muscles and the soleus muscle. A calf strain occurs when you injure the gastrocnemius and the muscle is stretched beyond its limit. There are various grades of calf strains, each requiring a different form of treatment depending on the severity of the injury.
Calf Strain Risk Factors
Although the majority of people will experience some form of muscle tear during their lives, there are a number of contributing risk factors that can lead to a calf strain, including:
- Insufficient muscle stretching
- Tight muscles
- Muscle fatigue
- Over-exertion and/or overuse
Calf Strain Symptoms
Depending on the significance of the muscle tear, a calf strain can become incredibly painful and are commonly experienced by men 30-50 years old. In most cases, those who have experienced a calf strain will feel sharp, extreme pain in the back of the leg and may hear a popping sound in the calf muscle.
Calf strains are graded depending on the severity of the injury.
Grade 1 Calf Strain
- Mild discomfort
- Minimal disability and limit to activity
- Microscopic tears of calf muscle fibers
- Recovery usually takes 2-3 weeks
Grade 2 Calf Strain
- Moderate discomfort
- Significant limit to certain activities, such as walking, running, and jumping
- Partial tears of calf muscle fibers, with accompanying bruising and swelling
- Recovery may take as much as 6 weeks
Grade 3 Calf Strain
- Severe discomfort
- Severe limit to most physical activities, including the inability to walk
- Complete rupture of calf muscle fibers, with accompanying bruising, swelling, and spasms
- Recovery can take upwards of 3 months
Calf Strain Diagnosis
If you are experiencing symptoms associated with a severe calf strain, it is crucial for you to be properly evaluated by an orthopedist for proper diagnosis and treatment.
Symptoms of a severe calf strain commonly include:
- Popping sound in calf muscle when injury occurred
- Difficulty or inability to walk
- Significant pain while sitting or lying down
- Pain during the night
It is important to receive a complete evaluation after experiencing these symptoms because in more severe cases, orthopedic surgery may be necessary. During this procedure, the torn ends of the calf muscles are reattached by an orthopedic surgeon. However, the necessity for this surgery is rare and many patients will usually undergo non-surgical treatment methods.
Please note that an Achilles’ tendon tear causes similar symptoms to a calf strain. However, an Achilles tendon tear is far more serious and may require additional treatment methods. Please make an appointment with your orthopedist to have the injury fully evaluated and differentiate between the two.
Calf Strain Treatment
Viable treatment options for calf strains are based on the grade of injury. Above all else, the key to a speedy recovery is resting your calf muscle and avoiding any activity that may cause extra strain or pressure to the affected area. Without adequate rest, it can significantly increase the necessary recovery time for a calf strain.
Along with plenty of rest, there are numerous self-treatment options that can be utilized for a full recovery, including:
Compression - A compression bandage can be used immediately after the injury to help lessen or stop the swelling. Please note that compression bandages should only be utilized for no more than ten minutes at a time. Otherwise, you may restrict proper blood flow to the calf tissues which can cause further damage to the muscle.
Elevation – Immediately following the injury, elevate your legs, allowing the calf muscles to rest. Be sure to remove all footwear and restricting clothing to allow the pain and swelling to subside.
Ice – During the initial 48 hours after the injury, be sure to apply ice to the injured calf. Ice can be used to help stimulate proper blood flow, as well as calm the natural inflammatory response in the area following trauma. Put ice directly on the calf as you rest for no more than 20 minutes, and then remove it for an hour. Be sure to use this alternating on-and-off treatment method for the first 24 hours the injury occurred.
Anti-inflammatory Medications – In some cases, medication can ease painful symptoms and help with the inflammation that develops following a calf strain.
Heat – It is important to apply heat to the injured area before engaging in any activities, such as stretching or walking, in order to help loosen the muscle properly.
Stretching – Three to five days following the injury, if there is no longer swelling or pain, it is recommended to begin slowly stretching the calf. Patients are also asked to softly massage the calf tissue in the area of the injury to decrease recovery time.
Physical Therapy - Physical therapy may be necessary to better speed calf strain recovery. Talk with your orthopedist to determine if physical therapy will be a beneficial method for treating your injury.
Calf Strain Prevention
There are prevention techniques that you can use to avoid calf strain or muscle pulls, including:
- Improving general physical fitness
- Regularly stretching
- Warming up before engaging in exercise
- Staying hydrated
- Strengthening calf muscles
- Listening to your body and recognizing muscle fatigue and stress
If your calf muscle made a popping sound and you cannot walk, you should contact an orthopedist immediately. Don't let calf strains cause any more pain, it's time you finally get treated! For more information about treatment options and to schedule an appointment with our orthopedist, please call (855) 690-0565.
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