There’s nothing that can sideline you faster than a sports injury–especially if it’s an injury like a calf strain. Whether you’re a pro soccer player or a weekend tennis hobbyist, a calf strain can happen to anyone. Do you know how to prevent one from happening to you? Today, we’ll cover how to prevent a calf strain, how to know if it’s happening to you, and how to treat one so that it doesn’t become worse or happen again.
How a Calf Strain Can Stop You in Your Tracks
While it doesn’t receive the same amount of attention as an ACL strain or breaking a bone, a calf strain is more likely to happen than either of the other more headline-grabbing injuries.
If you’ve strained your calf, it means you’ve experienced chronic or acute damage to the fibers in the muscles that make up your calves. This involves three specific muscles which make up the triceps surae: the soleus, the medial gastrocnemius, and the lateral gastrocnemius. The gastrocnemius muscles are the bulging muscles we think of when we think of our calves, and the soleus is a smaller, more slender muscle that connects from your Achilles to your kneecap and sits between your shin and gastrocnemius. A strain on any one of these three will result in a tear.
Not to be confused with a calf tear, which involves the tearing of the tendon behind the calf muscle, a calf strain takes place when the muscle has been stretched beyond what it can endure. As a result, it tears.
Sports which involve fast acceleration from a stationary position or quick stops (such as tennis or soccer) tend to see more gastrocnemius injuries than others, especially when many movements are called for that contract and yet forcibly lengthen the calf muscle (such as jumping up on a curb).
There are three grades of gastrocnemius injuries: Grade 1, Grade 2, and Grade 3. Grade 1 injuries involve just a few muscle fibers. They stretching or tearing is minor or partial, and the lower leg muscles maintain normal strength, though your leg may be painful or tender to the touch. Most people can walk just fine with a Grade 1 injury.
Grade 2 injuries involve a greater percentage of muscle as well as a moderate stretching or tearing. Sports players might also report a snapping feeling or pulling sensation at the time of the injury (or afterward). The injured party will notice loss of strength in this muscle and will experience difficulty walking and, occasionally, bruising.
The final grade of injury, Grade 3, is quite painful. It involves a severe muscular tear and in fact, sometimes even the entire muscle will tear. Often, the player will hear a popping sound when the injury takes place. There will even sometimes be a dent in the muscle where it is torn. Bruising will also be obvious.
Can You Avoid This Type of Sports Injury?
As we’ve mentioned, certain motions can cause strains to muscle fibers to happen more readily than others. However, a calf strain can happen even in a non-athletic person just going about his or her daily routine (climbing stairs, for example). However, the sports that most commonly see such injuries are the following:
Failing to warm up muscles properly is a common cause of muscle strain, but older muscles also tend to strain more readily as they tend to be less elastic. Because aging gradually diminished muscle strength and selectively weakens the particular types of muscles fibers that perform the movements sports players must undertake, it’s not uncommon for older players to experience greater incidences of strains in their lower legs.
If you’ve experienced a calf muscle tear before, you’re also more likely to strain it again, since the scar tissue that rebuilds torn muscle is not as elastic and flexible. Prior strains, therefore, should be taken seriously. Also, strains might also be caused by things such as underdeveloped muscles elsewhere. For example, underdeveloped gluteus muscles will result in a greater load on your calf.
Do You Have a Calf Strain?
Sometimes, pain from a sports injury is not readily apparent or easy to track down. Typically, however, a calf strain will not be severe enough to keep you from being able to diagnose your injury yourself. Here are the symptoms to look for:
- Did you experience a sudden, unexpected pain at the back of your leg?
- Did you hear or feel a pop?
- Are you experiencing a tight feeling or weakness in your calf?
- Is your calf experiencing muscle spasms?
- Do you have trouble contracting your calf?
- Can you stand on tiptoe without pain or discomfort?
- Are you experiencing pain, swelling, or bruising in your lower leg?
- Do you experience pain when your flex or point your foot or when you contract your muscles against resistance?
Treating a Calf Injury Yourself
If you’ve experienced the pain of a calf strain, you understand that you might need more than at-home treatment, especially if the pain or injury is significant or you want to heal faster. If you choose to self-treat, you’ll need to rest your aching leg, ice it down (though you should never apply ice directly to your skin), apply compression, and elevate your foot.
What you should not do is directly use your leg until it is healed. If you are a runner, you can use the recovery time to cross-train. It can take from a few weeks to several months to recover from a strain, and the recovery will often depend on how physically healthy you are and how well you take care of the impacted leg.
If you’d like to seek treatment, here’s what you can expect from seeing a physical therapist. He or she will likely watch how you walk and question you about how your injury occurred, using the types of questions we asked above. Your therapist might test the different muscles that make up your calf and feel gently to determine where, precisely, the injury occurred, and to discover the extent of the bruising and swelling.
Your therapist may recommend that you also work with an orthopedist or other professionals, particularly if your injury is severe. An orthopedist might order additional tests, like an x-ray or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to help assess damage and confirm the PT’s diagnosis. These tests are generally uncommon, however.
In the first 24-48 hours after your injury, your therapist will likely recommend that you rest your torn muscle; he or she might also provide you with a crutch, brace, or boot if necessary. Your therapist will instruct you to apply ice (typically for about fifteen minutes every two hours) and show you how to compress the area with an elastic bandage. You might also be given small heel lifts to slip into your shoes and help take the pressure off your compromised calf when you walk.
Working With a Physical Therapist
Once your therapist has determined the extent of the injury and you’ve made it through the initial shock and swelling, she will provide you with a plan for treatment. Typically the first step will be to reduce the pain using massage, electricity, ice and heat, and other methods.
The therapist’s other primary objective will be to help improve your range of motion and keep you from losing any as you heal. This is where he or she will teach you how to perform certain activities and exercises. Sometimes that means passive motions the therapist will assist you through and sometimes that means things you do at home by yourself. Either way, these stretches will help to keep your muscles warm and help them to heal quickly and without loss of mobility.
Your therapist will also help you to ramp up your exercises at the appropriate time to increase your damaged muscle strength, without re-injuring it. She might have you start using a treadmill or stationary bike, or take advantage of ankle weights, resistance bands, or weight-lifting equipment. He or she will also help you to identify if you are not healing as fast as you should.
Finally, your therapist will help you to return to your former level of activity. If you were injured in a certain sport, he or she would help you with retraining activities, particularly gastrocnemius exercises, and sport-specific drills and techniques so that you can continue to play without risking another injury.
Some of this training will likely focus on preventative measures like warm-up stretches and strengthening exercises to make sure you’re utilizing all the muscles in your body and not putting improper strain on your calves.
A calf strain can be painful, but it doesn’t have to permanently keep you out of the game. Understanding how to prevent it from happening and how to identify the symptoms and treat it are vital to maintaining your body’s health, whether you’re a pro sports playing or a weekend warrior.