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A calf strain is an injury caused by stretching or tearing of part of the calf muscles at the back of your lower leg. A stretched calf muscle is also colloquially known as a “pulled” muscle.
This injury usually announces itself initially by means of a sharp pain at the back of your lower leg. In cases of severe injury, you may also experience a “popping” or snapping sound or sensation from that area. Walking may become difficult or impossible.
Most calf strains are treatable using conservative self care steps including protecting and resting your calf and applying ice and compression to the area.
The calf muscles actually consist of two muscle groups – the gastrocnemius and the soleus.
The gastrocnemius is the larger of the two and lies closer to the surface of your leg (the skin). It also has two heads at the top and extends over both the knee and ankle joints. The soleus muscle is smaller and lies deeper under the skin. Either or both of these muscles may be damaged if you experience a calf strain.
Calf strains can be categorized according to their degree of severity, as follows:
This is the mildest type of strain and (fortunately) it is also the most common. Either or both of the calf muscles may experience overstretching but no tearing (either partial or complete) will be present. Any interruption to your regular sporting or other injuries will be short – about 1-3 weeks.
As we mentioned at the start, this type of calf strain is also referred to as a “pulled” muscle.
This is a more severe injury in which either or both muscles can be partially (but not completely) torn. You will experience an interruption to normal activity of around 3-6 weeks.
This is the most severe type of calf strain but also the rarest. One or both muscles will be completely torn, usually near the junction with the Achilles tendon at the bottom of your leg. This usually produces significant pain and may require surgical correction. Expect to be out of action for several weeks or even months, depending on the severity of the muscle tear..
The most typical cause of a calf strain is a sudden contraction of the calf muscles as preparation for a jump or sudden burst of acceleration.
The gastrocnemius muscle tends to be particularly at risk in this situation as it is a biarthrodial muscle that extends over two joints (the knee and the ankle). As a result, it can be subject to greater forces than other types of muscle. However, as we have mentioned above, the soleus muscle can also suffer damage as part of a calf strain.
The sports in which calf strains tend to be most frequently observed include basketball, soccer, tennis and others in which jumping or sudden sprints are frequently required.
Many calf strains occur at or near the medial (inner) head of the gastrocnemium muscle. When this happens, the injury is also known as “tennis leg”.
Some of the risk factors that may increase your odds of experiencing this muscle injury include:
Symptoms of this injury commonly include the following:
If you experience some or all of these symptoms, you should consult a doctor, preferably one with sports medicine expertise.
Most calf strains respond to non surgical P.R.I.C.E. based treatment, such as:
Once your healing is underway, your doctor will likely refer you to a physiotherapist. An important part of your treatment will be physical therapy exercises to stretch and strengthen your calf muscles. A physiotherapist can devise an exercise program to achieve this. This program will help you regain your original knee joint range of motion and to return to normal activity with less re-injury risk.
Having said this, it is important to avoid aggressive stretching of your calf muscles at an early stage of your recovery. Any stretching activity should be very gentle and should stop if you experience any calf pain.
At the same time, you would be well advised to avoid certain activities that may aggravate the injury. These would include:
Although surgical treatment may be required for some grade III strains (with complete muscle tears) these are very rare indeed. If you do have this type of calf muscle strain, your doctors can suggest the possible surgical interventions with you and help you to choose one.
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