We’ve all experienced sore calf muscles—often the telltale sign is seeing someone grab for the back of their leg! There are many reasons why someone might experience sore or tight calf muscles, or general calf muscle pain. Thankfully, dealing with sore calves is not necessary because there are treatments available.
Simple stretching before performing an activity can help prevent injury and strain. Reasons for pain in the calf muscles include an injury (whether from sports or vigorous activity), a medical condition that you might not be aware of, or a nerve issue. The level of pain felt varies from person to person, as does the reason for sore and tight calves, but the most common factor is weakness and some degree of pain, typically made worse by walking.
Common Causes of Sore Calf Muscles
Sore calf muscles can happen out of the blue and without warning or it can happen gradually over time. The causes of sore calf muscles can include:
- Using the calf muscle too much
- An injury to the calf muscle
Struggling to come up with a reason as to why the calf muscles are sore can be frustrating, particularly if the calf muscle pain develops slowly.
There are two main reasons for calf muscle pain: injury and an underlying medical condition. Figure out which category your pain falls under. An injury happens when you use the muscles too much, resulting in straining or even pulling it, and possibly tearing the muscles. Walking and standing on the leg with the injury will only result in increasing the discomfort.
Medical causes for sore and painful calves can be the result of a torn Achilles tendon. If the tender area feels warm then it is a good indication there is a medical reason for the calf pain. The following are general causes for calf pain:
- A trapped nerve: Basically where nerves are compressed and trapped and they react by sending signals that are received as pain.
- Baker’s cyst: An inflammation of a sac that sits behind the knee. The cyst on its own can cause pain, but even more so if it bursts.
- Achilles tendonitis: Inflammation of this tendon can cause calf muscle pain; it can take months to heal.
- Calf injury: This is the most common reason for calf pain and usually results from some kind of sporting activity.
- Calf cramps: These cramps, often called a “charley horse”, wake people up in the middle of the night. People will often experience a spasm in the calf muscle.
- Deep vein thrombosis (DVT): DVT is a blood clot and requires immediate medical attention. Pain, redness, swelling and warmth around the tender area are clear indications of DVT and should be looked at.
- Muscle imbalance: The imbalance refers to tightness and weakness in the calf muscle; it can happen when standing on your feet for a long time. Stretching and working the muscles regularly will help resolve this issue.
- Peripheral Vascular Disease (PVD): PVD happens when the arteries narrow and cause blood to flow slowly.
Signs and Symptoms of Sore Calf Muscles
Depending on the type of injury and whether it is a medical concern instead, the signs and symptoms associated with sore calf muscles can vary. Overall, the first indication will be pain on some level and an inability to stand or walk on that leg to varying degrees. The more strained/torn/injured the muscle is, the more difficult it will be to manage carrying on with regular activities. Taking the weight off the leg will ease the discomfort.
Tenderness at the site, swelling, muscle spasms, and even bruising are common signs of an injury to the calf muscles. Fever, numbness, skin discoloration, and weight loss are also symptoms.
There are three degrees of calf muscle strain that will help determine the level of damage done:
- First-degree strain: A first-degree strain is the least concerning and cramping may not be felt until later on.
- Second-degree strain: With a second-degree strain, pain is felt almost immediately and the area is sore when touched.
- Third-degree strain: A third-degree strain is the most serious. With this, a person will feel a sharp stabbing pain right away and won’t be able to get up or walk on the leg.
Natural Ways to Treat and Prevent Sore Calf Muscles
The best way to prevent injuring the calf muscle and the resulting pain that follows is to stretch before conducting physical activity. Stretching loosens the muscles and makes them more ready to deal with sudden strains and pulls that vigorous activity like jumping, running, leaping, and jogging can do. These activities can be hard on the muscles and joints, so warming up the muscles is the first step to preventing sore calves.
Stretching should be done regularly, but a good routine to follow before participating in a physical activity is to warm up beforehand and then cool down after. It allows the body to prepare and then relax after exertion. The warm-up should last a good 20 minutes
If there is some kind of injury at the first or second-degree level, the following steps can help alleviate discomfort. The first four should be done right after the injury and are referred to as the RICE protocol:
- Rest: Get off the leg that is hurt. It should be lifted and resting. For first-degree injuries avoid physical activity for at least three weeks. For second-degree injuries the time moves up to four to six weeks.
- Ice: Ice will help with any swelling or bruising that might set in.
- Compression: Wrapping the calf snuggly with some athletic gauze or a compression bandage (found in most drugstores) helps reduce the swelling.
- Elevation: Keeping the leg elevated will further reduce swelling and inflammation.
If the calf pain has reduced after the first 24 hours from the injury, and there is no further swelling, the RICE protocol can be put aside. Make sure to rest the leg, which means avoiding physical activity during that time and stretching the calf muscles regularly (a few times a day).
If the injury is more severe, consider physical therapy because a therapist can guide you in proper stretching and provide exercises that will help speed up recovery.
Our bodies can handle a lot of wear and tear, but as we get older, we need to be mindful of how much abuse we put our bodies through. Staying physically active is essential to maintaining good health for both the body and mind. A few simple steps before and after an activity will better ensure fewer injuries sustained to your calf muscles. Proper stretching, warm-up and cool down activities are really the best way to begin engaging the muscles before working them up to full capacity.
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“Calf Pain Causes,” Healthgrades web site; http://www.healthgrades.com/right-care/bones-joints-and-muscles/calf-pain–causes, last accessed February 3, 2016.
“Calf Muscle Strain in Depth,” PhysioRoom.com;http://www.physioroom.com/injuries/calf_and_shin/calf_strain_full.php, last accessed February 3, 2016.
“Calf Pain Symptoms,” Healthgrades web site;http://www.healthgrades.com/right-care/bones-joints-and-muscles/calf-pain–symptoms, last accessed February 3, 2016.
Clark, J., “Lower Leg Pain,” Cool Running web site;http://www.coolrunning.com/engine/2/2_5/196.shtml, last accessed February 3, 2016.