Calf muscles are situated at the backside of the lower leg and consist of two muscle groups – gastrocnemius (originating above the knee joint) and soleus (originating below the knee joint). Both these muscle groups connect to the knee bone via the Achilles tendon.
When these muscles are stretched beyond their natural limitation, it results in a strain. Strains that are less severe pull the muscle beyond their normal range, while more severe strains tear muscle fibers and may also result in a complete tear. However, most strains in the calf muscle are minor tears, breaking only some of the muscle fibers and leaving the rest of the tissue intact.
Calf strain symptoms
Strains in the calf muscle can result in a lot of pain, but the extent of pain depends on the severity of the injury. Calf strains are usually classified in the following grades:
Grade 1 – This causes mild discomfort and usually no limits to physical activity.
Grade 2 – Mild discomfort when walking, and limited ability to engage in physical activities like jumping and running; may have bruising and swelling associated.
Grade 3 – Injury that can result in inability to perform physical activities. Victims of grade 3 strain often complain of swelling, bruising and spasms.
During a calf strain, you may feel you’ve been hit sharply at the back of the leg and may hear a ‘pop’. There will be a sudden pain in the back of the lower leg, or swelling over the calf muscle. Some calf injuries may make it difficult to tolerate body weight on the injured side.
The healing process of a calf muscle strain starts with an inflammatory response, and rest and protection of the injured area is crucial to prevent damage. During the inflammatory response, the body creates cells to remove the dead muscle fibers and start the repair process, which includes regeneration of muscle fibers from special cells inside the muscle, formation of sar tissue within the muscle, and maturation of the scar tissue which makes fibers aligned along lines of stress and able to take more force.
Exercises and stretching: For low level calf strains, a physiotherapist can recommend you exercises that need to be performed 3 times a day. Some examples of such exercises include calf raises on a stair to the point where the pain does not aggravate. Exercises can be start 1-2 weeks after injury.
You may also be asked to stretch. A stretch you can perform at home is sit down with an extended leg in front of you and keeping your back straight. Keep a towel around the foot and draw the ends of the towel towards you. Bring the toes towards your body with the help of your foot, ankle and towel till you get a stretch at your leg’s lower back. Hold for 5 seconds and repeat the stretch five times.
Compression clothing: Compression leg sleeves for women and men can lead to faster recovery by improving blood circulation, supporting the surrounding joints and rejuvenating relief from everyday pain while providing a full range of motion. Such compression gear also provides restorative benefits while the person is asleep.
This type of gear has built-in elasticity that makes sure the strained muscle is not wrapped too tightly. This results in compression to the injured area while providing smooth relief and preventing formation of swelling.
Ultrasound: A physical therapist may also assist procedures like massage therapy with ultrasound to promote healing after a strained muscle. It can help improve blood flow to the area and break-down cross fibers formed in the injured area, making space for collagen fibers to heal in alignment.
Ultrasound rehab may continue after the treatment is effective in removing the symptoms to ensure a person gains strength and full flexibility of the calf.
Rest, ice and elevation
When a calf strain occurs, an important step is to reduce swelling that may be present; the goal is to reduce inflammation, which means applying ice should be the first plan of action. It has become easier over the years to smuggle an ice pack into the fridge and wear compression under everyday clothing. Ice should be applied during the first 7 days after the injury.
Rest is important because an injured calf muscle requires decreased activity to fully recover from the injury. Elevation is important in the beginning days of the injury when swelling may be present. The leg should be elevated above the chest level – this can be done by laying down and propping your foot up on a couch arm with pillows.