Man gripping calf in pain running on the beach

Tips for Avoiding Calf Injuries

What is a calf injury? What activities can cause it? 

The calf muscles are a pair of muscles extending from the bottom of the thigh right down to the heel. These muscles are respectively called the soleus and gastrocnemius. These muscles are crucial for any movement of your foot or ankle and act as pushers, pullers, and stabilizers for a number of motions. Calf injury most often occurs during sports activities, specifically when the toes come down quickly before the heel can adjust. The most common calf injury is a strain, or pulled calf muscle, sometimes referred to as tennis leg, caused by hyperextension (over-stretching) or torsion (twisting). Athletes in the following sports: football, soccer, tennis, or track, and field; can be especially prone to calf muscle injuries.

Strength Imbalances and Training Errors 

Calf strains, as we mentioned before, are tears in the muscle fibers that connect muscles to bones in the lower leg. Due to the nature of most calf strains (caused by hyperextension or torsion), it's critical to realize what situations might put you at risk for this kind of injury. One of the most common errors during training or exercise that lead to calf injuries is failing to perform a proper warm-up. When cold, our muscles become stiffer, tighter, and less flexible. Jumping right into an intense exercise in a full range of motion with cold, unstretched muscles makes you prone to hyperextension and muscle strain. Another harmful practice sometimes seen in athletes' training regimens is poor form or posture when running at a grade. If the ground you're running on is sloped, it can lift your toes, putting additional stress on the calf muscles. This is why it’s especially important to wear well-fitting, shock-absorbent shoes and practice proper form when running uphill. Lastly, it's important to remember that calf muscles are part of a system of muscles that support and oppose each other in the leg. If supporting muscles, like the Achilles tendon, become tightened, it can cause the calves to take on more stress. Similarly, when opposing muscles, like those found in the shins and quadriceps get overtrained, they can cause an imbalance that puts the calves at risk. 

Risks with Calf Strains 

Calf strains can vary in location and severity, but each calf strain comes with several potential risk factors. Most strains are minor tears in the muscles or tendons in the calf. They can be painful, but when rested, they can potentially make a full recovery in a few weeks. While these strains can still lead to further injury proneness in the future, they often have hardly any long-term effect on the body. Some strains can be much more serious, like in the event of a partial or complete tear in the calf, a situation this severe may require surgery, physical therapy, and a much longer course of treatment and rehabilitation. In cases like these, a patient's risk of future reinjury increases, but although the recovery process is often slow and tedious, almost all calf strain injuries experience a full recovery with no long-term pain or damage. 

Symptoms of Calf Strain 

The most common symptoms of calf strain are difficulty moving the foot and ankle through a full range of motion, pain when flexing or pointing your toes, problems bending at the knee, as well as popping or clicking in the joints in your leg, and swelling or bruising in the calf muscles. A calf strain can often be treated at home using the RICE method and getting plenty of rest. If the pain becomes severe and symptoms worsen after the initial injury, you should talk to a medical professional, a doctor of sports medicine, or physical therapist about the injury. 

How to Deal with Calf Strain 

Calf strain, as we mentioned before, can occur in various locations and has varying grades of severity, but the treatment, except in extreme cases, is relatively the same. Avoid putting any further stress on the injured muscles. Use the RICE method (Rest, Ice, Compression, and Elevation) to support your body's natural healing process. Avoid using heat on the injured area for at least 48 hours after the initial injury. Heat can increase blood flow to the injury site, and in the case of already swollen or inflamed muscles, it will not help. Heat is more effective later in the healing process once the inflammation has subsided. Avoid drinking alcohol as this can preoccupy your immune system and further increase inflammation by dilating blood vessels in the injured area. If unsure, or the pain worsens, your injury might need more serious treatment, reach out for assistance from a medical professional.

Exercises and Stretches to Aid in your Recovery 

Stretching and exercise are vital steps in rehabilitating calf muscles after a severe injury. Remember to start slow, go easy, and be aware of your body’s response to each movement. Some of the best stretches to begin with are glute, hamstring, and calf stretches. Following your stretching exercises, perform ankle plantarflexion, dorsiflexion, and bilateral heel raise on a step. For more information on these exercises, click here. When stretching and exercising to recover, you should not be experiencing pain. If unsure what exercises are right for you, talk to a physical therapist or sports medicine professional for recommendations. 



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