The calf is made up of two muscles; the gastrocnemius, which is the muscle you can see and feel, and the soleus, which lies underneath the gastrocnemius in the back of the leg. These muscles come together at the Achilles’ tendon, which in turn attaches to your heel. The function of the calf muscles is to raise the heel as you extend (point) your foot. These muscles are therefore activated every time you walk, run, or jump.
Symptoms of Calf Pains
Calf pain or discomfort varies, depending on the cause. For example, if you have tight calf muscles, you may feel a dull “pulling” pain; if you get a muscle cramp in the middle of the night, the pain is likely to be sharp and piercing. You may feel pain along your entire calf muscle or, if you strain (pull) the muscle during activity, you may feel a sharp pain only in the affected spot. In addition to pain, you may experience swelling and/or tenderness due to inflammation, fluid retention, or a blood clot.
Generally, with age, the calf muscles become less flexible. Tight, inflexible calf muscles put more load on the Achilles tendon, especially during activities such as tennis, which require rapid changes in direction. This can lead to a strained or ruptured tendon. Wearing high heels may also cause tightness and shortening of the calf muscles, which can set the stage for a tendon rupture.
Calf pain is also associated with other foot and medical conditions, including the following:
Achilles tendinitis: As noted above, tight, inflexible calf muscles put extra stress on the Achilles tendon, especially during, and when first starting a vigorous exercise programme. See the section on prevention and treatment for a few simple stretching exercises.
Deep vein thrombosis (DVT): It is a blood clot that forms in a vein, deep in the body. It’s a serious condition that has been linked to certain medications, medical conditions, or sitting for long periods. Symptoms may include: swelling of the leg, or along a vein in the leg; pain or tenderness in the leg, which you may feel only when standing or walking; increased warmth in the area of the leg, such as the calf, that’s swollen or painful; and red or discoloured skin on the leg. If you suspect you have DVT, see your doctor immediately.
Muscle cramp: Just about everyone will experience a muscle cramp, often in the calf muscle, at some point. The main causes are muscle fatigue from prolonged activity; lack of conditioning (i.e., the leg muscles don’t stretch and contract properly); and heat, dehydration, and loss of electrolytes. Muscle cramps generally are not serious, but if you get them frequently, definitely have it checked.
Plantar fasciitis: Tight calf muscles that make it difficult to dorsiflex your foot (bring your toes up toward your shin), is a risk factor for this painful foot condition. If you do try to force your foot upward without properly stretching, you are likely to experience calf pain.
Sciatica: The sciatic nerve controls muscles in the back of your knee and lower leg. When you have sciatica, you have pain, weakness, numbness, or tingling that often start in the butt/ lower back, and extend down your leg to your calf, foot, or toes. Various exercises can help reduce the pain, and/or likelihood of developing sciatica. Pain injections are another option. If sciatica is due to a lumbar herniated disc, and you experience prolonged pain, surgery may be suggested.
Prevention and Treatment
While prevention and treatment of calf pain depend on the cause of it, you are likely to benefit from staying hydrated; exercising regularly, including doing exercises that stretch and strengthen the calf. When you see your podiatrist, or physiotherapist, it would be determined, what specific therapy is needed.
Calf Raises: Stand with your feet a few inches apart, facing forward. Keeping your legs straight, but not locked, rise up onto the balls of your feet. You can do this exercise on a floor or other flat surface, but you’ll get a better stretch if you stand on a step, curb, or even a large book.
Calf Stretch Using a Wall: Stand with your arms extended straight out at shoulder level, hands pressing against a wall. Take a step back with the right foot, keeping the foot facing directly forward. Press into the heel of the right foot as you bend the left leg.
Calf Stretch Using a Step or Curb: Stand near a curb or on a step with both feet facing forward. Take a small step back with your right foot, so that the heel of the foot is off the step, (make sure you have something to hold onto for balance, if needed). Gently push your right heel down, keeping your right leg straight, but not locked.
Most calf pain is benign. However, a potentially serious condition called compartment syndrome, may develop either from overexertion (chronic). It may also be the result of an acute injury, such as a bad muscle bruise, or a too-tight bandage or leg cast.
Compartments are groupings of muscles, nerves and blood vessels in the legs, that are covered by strong, fibrous tissue called fascia. When pressure builds within the muscles, it can result in intense pain, as well as decreased blood flow. Chronic compartment syndrome causes cramping during exercise, that ceases when you stop exercising.
Acute compartment syndrome produces pain that’s more intense than you would normally expect. The muscle may feel tight, or full, and you may have a tingling or burning sensation. Seek help to treat with your problems.
Your feet mirror your general health . . . cherish them!