What Causes Calf Strain?

Dan Cavallari

A calf strain can be caused by over-stretching the calf muscle during physical activity, or by supporting a sudden weight that the muscles of the calf are not prepared for. In some cases, a calf strain can be caused by a direct impact on the calf muscles, thereby leading to bruising, straining, or tearing. Most common in athletes, a calf strain is treated with the RICE treatment method, but in more severe cases, physical therapy may also be necessary. A strain often results in a dull ache, whereas a more serious tear may produce a sharp, shooting pain.

A person with defined calf muscles.
A person with defined calf muscles.

Symptoms of a calf strain include stiffness or limited mobility in the calf muscle; bruising in the leg, usually on the calf or anywhere on the lower leg; tenderness and sensitivity to touch; pain when weight is placed on that leg; and general weakness in the affected leg. Sharp, shooting pains may be indicative of a more serious problem, and a doctor should be consulted immediately. A calf strain can be treated at home if it is a minor strain, or with minimal to moderate physical therapy for more serious strains.

A healthcare provider examining a woman's calf.
A healthcare provider examining a woman's calf.

After experiencing a calf strain, one might experience limited mobility in the leg. The muscles need time to heal, so appropriate rest is necessary immediately after the injury occurs. Mobility can be restored slowly over the course of several days or weeks by exercising and stretching the muscle lightly until pain is no longer present. The RICE method — Rest, Ice, Compression, and Elevation — is the best approach to keep swelling to a minimum and promote a quick recovery. Rest allows the muscles to repair themselves; ice and compression help to keep swelling down, as does elevation. An injured person should not rush to put too much weight on the calf, as re-injury is likely.

Football players are at risk of calf strain.
Football players are at risk of calf strain.

To prevent calf strains in the future, one should prepare the muscles properly before participating in any physical activity. Sports such as running, football, baseball, tennis, and any other activity that requires sudden and fast movement can all lead to calf strains, so a thorough stretching routine should be used both before and after the athletic event. Stretching the muscles prepares them for the strain of physical activity, and it makes them more resilient against direct blows. On cold days, extra time should be taken to stretch the muscles, and the athlete should drink plenty of water to help prevent dehydration, which can lead to muscle strains.

Baseball players are prone to calf strains because they must move suddenly.
Baseball players are prone to calf strains because they must move suddenly.

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