I Think I Pulled My Calf Muscle. What Should I Do?

Active individuals who partake in sports such as running, soccer, basketball, gymnastics, and dancing are at increased risk of suffering from a calf strain. A calf strain is an injury to the muscles in the back of the lower leg. This can occur during high-speed motions or forceful movements during running or jumping.

This type of strain can lead to calf pain after climbing stairs or sharp pain in a calf muscle while running. It’s essential to seek medical attention as soon as possible when you have a calf strain to prevent further injury. Here, we explain how pulled calf muscles are diagnosed and treated.

Calf Strain Diagnosis

The muscles at the back of your lower leg are commonly called the calf. There are two major muscles that make up the calf: gastrocnemius and soleus. The gastrocnemius originates above the knee, and the soleus originates below the knee. Both of these muscles come together to form the Achilles tendon and attach to your heel bone. These muscles are active during many movements, including walking, standing on your toes, pushing on the gas pedal during driving, and pointing your toes downward.

A calf strain is caused when these muscles are overstretched, overused, or torn. This injury can happen suddenly or can be a gradual breakdown of the muscles. Daily activities such as walking, running, or going up and down stairs can be painful.

Calf strains are graded by the amount of damage that occurs in the muscles:

  • Grade 1: Partial stretch or tear of the calf muscles. Your calf may be tender and painful, but everyday activities are usually not affected.
  • Grade 2: Moderate tear of the calf muscle with possible pulling or snapping sensation. Your calf will be painful, tender, and feel weak. You may also notice some bruising. Walking will be difficult.
  • Grade 3: Severe tear or stretch of the muscle with a possible full tear. You may feel or hear a popping sound during the injury. Bruising will occur, and putting weight on your leg is very painful. Walking and going up and down stairs will be challenging.

Your doctor may suggest an X-ray or MRI to confirm the diagnosis or rule out other possible causes.

Symptoms of Calf Strains

Athletes and people suffering from a calf strain will experience symptoms ranging in severity depending on the type of strain they have. A mild strain can cause discomfort that feels like post-workout soreness, such as calf pain when pointing toes, while a severe strain can be debilitating.

Symptoms of a strained calf include:

  • Sudden sharp pain or pulling sensation in the back of the lower leg
  • Difficulty/inability to bear weight through the involved leg
  • Swelling, tenderness, and bruising of the involved area
  • Dent in the calf muscle for more severe sprains
  • Difficulty walking, climbing stairs, running, or jumping
  • Throbbing pain or stiffness in the calf with rest

Causes of Calf Strains

A calf strain usually happens when there is a forceful contraction of the calf muscle. This includes movements such as jumping, lunging forward, or attempting to accelerate from a still position. Calf strains can also occur due to overuse and gradual wear and tear.

Certain factors can increase the risk for developing a calf strain, such as decreased flexibility, poor training, calf weakness, poor running mechanics, inadequate warm-up, improper footwear, and fatigue. Your physical therapist can address each of these issues in order to prevent another calf strain from reoccurring.

Recovery Time

It’s important to wait until the calf muscle is completely healed before returning to your regular activities. If you do not give it the proper time to heal, the calf muscle may sustain a second injury. Resting the injured muscle and keeping it elevated can speed up the recovery process.

How Can Physical Therapy Help Pulled Calf Muscles?

Your therapist will create a plan of care that will help you achieve your goals, including a safe return to sports or daily activities. Initially, rest and protecting the area from further injury are recommended. Reduce activities that cause pain. Your doctor may recommend crutches or a walking boot to reduce further strain on the injured calf muscle while walking. Ice, elevation, and compression will help calm swelling and control pain.

Your therapist will also use a variety of treatments to help reduce your pain and swelling. These treatments may include ice, heat, ultrasound, taping, gentle exercises, and hands-on therapy. Once your calf injury calms down, treatment will consist of:

Exercises to Increase Motion

Gentle movement of your knee and ankle will help maintain your motion. Your therapist will carefully progress these movements with added resistance and stretching to help increase your ankle and knee flexibility.

Strengthening

Your therapist will prescribe appropriate exercises to help safely improve your leg strength without aggravating your symptoms. These may include resistance bands, weight-lifting equipment, or cardio exercise equipment such as a treadmill.

Hands-On Treatment

Your therapist will provide hands-on treatment to decrease swelling, increase blood flow, and reduce tender areas that will allow proper healing to occur. Hands-on treatment may also include therapist-assisted stretching to improve your motion.

Recovery Goals

Your physical therapist will work with you to develop a recovery plan to get you back to your sport or work as fast as possible in the most effective way. They will guide you through sport-specific techniques or work activities to regain the strength you need to perform well.

Preventing Injury

A home exercise program to help maintain what you have gained in therapy will be provided. Exercises to help strengthen and stretch the muscles around your lower leg and balance exercises will help prevent re-injury of the calf muscle in the future.

What You Can Do to Prevent Pulling a Calf Muscle

To prevent a calf strain from occurring, make sure to participate in a proper warm-up before any intense activity. Gradually increase the intensity of your training and avoid pushing yourself too hard too soon. Consistent strengthening and stretching will help maintain good physical health. Foam rolling the pulled calf muscle can help prevent scar tissue from forming and can improve blood flow to that area of your leg. Be sure to wear proper shoes when participating in your sport or activities.

Calf Pain? Seek Help Today

Pulled calf muscles are common, especially when you try a new sport or exercise routine. In most cases, you can care for a calf strain by resting it, elevating it, and using hot and cold packs. However, if the pain is severe or persists, it’s time to see a doctor for diagnosis and treatment.

Visit Total Performance Physical Therapy today if you are suffering from a calf strain or would like to learn more about preventing a calf injury. Do not hesitate to reach out for more information on calf pain or treatment for sports-related injuries.

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