Pulling, straining, or tearing your calf muscle can leave you in a lot of pain and make walking difficult. Your calf muscles are located at the back of your lower leg and are needed to move your legs when walking, running, or jumping. Calf muscle injuries can happen when straining tight leg muscles by accelerating fast or suddenly changing direction.
Pulling or tearing a calf muscle can cause a sudden sharp pain in the back of your leg. Depending on the extent of injury to your calf muscle, you might have mild to intense pain. You might even hear your calf muscle “pop” when it tears. This kind of bad calf muscle injury usually results in swelling, bruising, and a lot of pain. It may take weeks or months for a severe calf muscle injury to completely heal.
The most effective home treatments for pulled, strained, or torn calf muscles are plenty of rest and avoiding straining the muscle more. Just after a calf muscle injury, the best treatment is to ice the back of your leg to prevent further swelling. As the pulled calf muscle heals, a warm heating pad, exercises, and stretching can all help to speed up the healing process.
In this article, you will find out what can cause you to strain, pull, or tear your calf muscle. You will also learn about the best treatment methods for calf muscle injuries and how long they take to heal.
What is the Calf Muscle?
There are 2 muscles that make up the calves in the back of your lower leg. These calf muscles are called the gastrocnemius and soleus.
Dr. Carol DerSarkissian on WebMD says that the gastrocnemius is a diamond shape muscle that forms the bulge at the back of your leg. The soleus is a much smaller calf muscle and is located under the gastrocnemius. Both of the muscles in the calves taper at the bottom and join to your Achilles tendon.1
The function of your calf muscles is to provide mobility to your legs and enable you to freely walk, run, or jump. You can feel your calf stretching if you outstretch your leg and point your toes to the floor.
According to the journal Current Reviews in Musculoskeletal Medicine, injuries to the calves are very common among sports people. In fact, calf strains are sometimes referred to as “Tennis Leg.” Most cases of pulled, torn, or strained calves occur in the gastrocnemius which joins the ankle and knee. A severe calf muscle tear is likened to cracking a whip and can leave a person in great pain having to limp when walking.2
Calf Muscle Strain vs. Pulled Calf Muscle vs. Calf Muscle Tear
What is the difference between a strained, pulled, and torn calf muscle? All of these injuries to your calves can cause varying degrees of pain and damage to your lower leg muscles.
Calf muscle strain
Calf muscle strain is a general term that can refer to any degree of damage to the gastrocnemius or soleus.
According to the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons (AAOS), calf strains happen when the muscle is overstretched. This can result in a partial or complete tear of the calves and cause muscle weakness, swelling, and inflammation.3
Pulled calf muscle
According to Dr. Carol DerSarkissian on WebMD, pulled calf muscle injuries happen when the back of the leg muscles are stretched beyond their limit.1 A pulled muscle in the calf may only cause mild pain and it is usually possible to continue walking with a calf pull.
Calf muscle tear
A torn muscle in the calf describes a serious muscle injury that causes muscle tissue in the back of your leg to tear away from tendons. The torn calf muscle may also show signs of bruising in your lower leg behind the knee. A severe tear in the calf muscle may even prevent you from walking at all.1
Grades of Calf Muscle Injury
All types of calf muscle injuries are graded according to their severity. These are classed as mild, moderate, or severe injuries to the calves. According to the Boston Sports Medicine & Research Institute, the grades of calf strains are as follows:4
Grade 1 calf muscle injury. A grade 1 injury to your calf is usually referred to as a “pulled calf.” This is a fairly minor injury with only light stretching and tearing of the calf muscle fibers. A grade 1 calf muscle injury will take between one and 3 weeks to heal.
Grade 2 calf muscle injury. A partial tear of the calf muscle results in a moderate, or grade 2 calf muscle injury. Pain will be significant and will cause weakness in the lower leg muscle and make walking difficult. Depending on the severity of the calf tear, the injury could take up to 6 weeks to heal.
Grade 3 calf muscle injury. The most severe kind of calf muscle injury is grade 3. This will cause sudden pain in the back of the leg when the calf muscle tears completely. In some cases, the tear is so severe that it causes a ruptured calf muscle. There may be visible signs of inflammation and it may even cause disability until the calf heals.
What Does Pulled, Strained, or Torn Calf Muscle Feel Like?
Straining, pulling, or tearing a calf muscle can feel like something has hit the back of your leg with force. According to the journal Radiology Case Reports, people who strain or tear a calf muscle have the sensation of something snapping in their mid-calf. In many cases, it is possible to hear the muscle “pop” or tear.5
A severe calf strain or torn calf will also feel very tender to touch. Dr. Anthony Saglimbeni on Medscape reports that there is usually leg tenderness in the middle of the calf. A second or third-degree calf injury will also cause swelling which causes a bulge in the back of the lower leg.6
Other symptoms of a muscle tear in the calf could also feel like sharp pain behind the knee as you walk or put pressure on the leg. It may also be impossible to flex your foot, and pushing off from your foot when walking could be very painful.
Causes of Strained, Pulled, or Torn Calf Muscle
Overstretching the calves is usually the most common cause of straining, pulling, or tearing the muscle fibers in your lower leg.
Doctors from the National Health Service (NHS) say that calf strains are commonly caused by putting too much force on the calf muscles. This stretches the muscle tissue beyond their limit, resulting in weakness and bleeding in the muscle.7
Dr. William C. Shiel on eMedicineHealth says that sudden acceleration or deceleration often causes muscle injuries to the calves. Upper calf strains and lower calf strains may also happen if you quickly stop and pivot or turn direction.8
There are also a number of factors that can increase your risk of suffering from a mild to severe calf strain. Physiotherapist Dr. Alex Petruska from the Boston Sports Medicine & Research Institute says that calf strains are common sports injuries in people aged between 30 and 45 year old.4
Dr. Anthony Saglimbeni on Medscape also says that not warming up properly can cause mild to severe calf injuries. This is because cold and unstretched muscles are more prone to snapping or tearing. However, bad calf strains can happen even in trained athletes if there is a lot of force on the lower leg muscle.9
Calf Muscle Cramps During the Night
Night leg cramps (also called nocturnal leg cramps or “charley horses”) mostly happen in the calf muscles. These are involuntary contractions or spasms of muscles in your legs usually at night during periods of inactivity that causes the calf muscles to feel tight and painful. The symptoms of night leg cramps may last from a few seconds up to a few minutes. The calf muscles might also feel sore after the cramp goes away.
According to doctors from Mayo Clinic, usually the cause for night leg cramps cannot be identified and is often unknown. They say that generally nocturnal leg cramps are related to muscle fatigue and nerve problems, and that the risk increases with age, when a woman is pregnant or with several health conditions such as kidney failure and diabetes.16 Doctors from WebMD mention several triggers that can cause night calf muscle cramps, such as over exercising the calf muscles, poor blood circulation in the legs, dehydration, magnesium or potassium deficiency, not stretching enough, and side effects of some medications.17
In my article about nighttime leg cramps you can find how to deal with calf muscle cramps when they happen and how to prevent muscle cramps at night.
How Long Do Calf Muscle Injuries Take to Heal?
Knowing how long it takes a calf muscle injury to heal depends on the extent of gastrocnemius tearing in the leg. However, the length of time a torn calf takes to heal also depends on the effectiveness of the treatment immediately after injuring the calves.
According to Dr. Anthony Saglimbeni, the first 24-72 hours are critical in initial treatment to ensure a speedy recovery. During this time, you should use ice and compression to reduce swelling and bleeding in the calf tear. This can help strained calf muscle injuries heal faster.10
It may also be necessary to walk with crutches or have an ankle brace fitted to prevent accidentally straining the calf muscle again and hindering healing time.
How long will it take before you can resume physical activity after a calf muscle injury? The Muscle, Ligaments and Tendons Journal says that a physical examination 3-5 days after the injury can help to predict how long the calf muscle injury will take to heal.11
Dr. Tero Järvinen from the University of Tampere provides some information on possible timeframes for calf injuries to heal:11
- A minor calf injury (grade 1) that results in mild pain should heal in 7 to 10 days.
- If you have suffered a moderate injury to your calf muscle (grade 2), you should expect healing to take 4 to 6 weeks.
- A severe grade 3 calf strain could take as long as 6 months to heal completely and may require surgery to repair the muscle tissue.
In cases of grade 2 and grade 3 calf muscle tears, recovery time is decreased by keeping weight off the injured leg as much as possible.
How to Treat Pulled or Strained Calf Muscle
To help quickly heal a pulled or strained calf muscle, it’s important to treat the injury with ice and compression as soon as possible.
P.R.I.C.E. to treat calf muscle tear
According to the Journal of the Canadian Chiropractic Association, the P.R.I.C.E. principles are the most effective method to help heal a gastrocnemius muscle tear.12
PRICE is an acronym for Protection, Rest, Ice, Compression, and Elevation. This helps to reduce swelling and pain in the muscles in the back of your leg in the first 72 hours.
How to use PRICE method to treat calf muscle tear:
To help speed up recovery time, you should start using the PRICE method as soon as possible after a calf muscle tear injury. Dr. William Shiel on eMedicineHealth says that this is what you need to do:12
- Protection. First of all, you should protect the strained calf muscle from further injury.
- Rest. Avoid any activities that could strain the muscle further and cause pain.
- Ice. Apply an ice pack to the calf muscle for up to 20 minutes every hour to reduce inflammation and help get rid of the pain.
- Compression. Gently apply an elastic bandage around your calf muscle to help prevent swelling in the calf muscle tear.
- Elevation. Keep your leg raised as much as possible to prevent bleeding in the injured calf muscle.
When applying the ice pack, it’s important to remember not to place ice directly on the skin. Wrap the ice pack in a thin towel and hold on the calf area at the back of your leg. Depending on the extent of strain in the calf muscles, you may have to apply the ice pack daily for the first few days to help control pain, swelling, and inflammation.
After a few days of icing the muscle strain in your calf, you should replace the ice pack with a heating pad. You should only start using heat to treat the muscle strain in your calf once the swelling has stopped.
How to use heat to help recover from calf muscle tear:
To help the muscle tissue heal quicker and start the rehabilitation process, you should apply heat daily to the injured calf. This is how to make your own heating pad at home:
- Fill a clean cotton sock with rice and leave about 3 inches clear at the top.
- Tie a knot in the sock, making sure that there is still some flexibility in the sock.
- Place in the microwave and heat on full power for 1-2 minutes.
- Wrap the rice-filled heating pad in a warm moist towel.
- Apply to your sore calf muscle for 20 minutes to increase circulation to the back of your leg and accelerate muscle recovery.
- Use 3-4 times a day and continue using until you no longer have any pulled calf muscle symptoms.
In some cases of strained calf muscle injuries, alternating between hot and cold treatments can help the damaged muscle recover quicker. For more information, please read my article on how to get rid of muscle soreness. There, you can also find out about the best essential oils for natural relief from muscle pain.
Exercises for Calf Muscle Strain
After two or three weeks of applying ice and heat treatments, you can start to use exercises for calf muscle strain. If you have suffered a grade 2 or grade 3 calf muscle tear, you should also consult with your doctor to get the extent of the injury assessed properly.
According to doctors from the Boston Sports Medicine & Research Institute, you should not stretch the calf muscles in the first three weeks of recovery. However, you can use some exercises to improve flexibility and strength in the recovering calf muscle.4
Calf strain exercises 2-3 weeks after the injury
When exercising your calf muscles after an injury, it’s important to make sure that you are always pain-free.
Here are some simple calf injury exercises to increase your range of motion (ROM). To do the following exercises, you should sit on a chair.
- Move your foot up and down 20 times. Repeat 3 times a day.
- Make circles with your foot 20 times. Repeat 3 times a day.
Ride on stationary bicycle for 10 minutes with no resistance.
Calf muscle strain exercises for recovery after 4 weeks
If your calf muscle is free of pain, you can now begin some gentle stretching to help boost recovery and rehabilitate your lower leg muscles.
Doctors from the National Health Service recommend the following calf exercises to help improve flexibility in your calves.7
Exercise 1 for strained calf muscle
- Stand facing a wall and put your hands on that wall at shoulder level.
- Extend your injured leg back with your heel on the floor as comfortable as possible and step forward with your uninjured leg.
- Gently lean your chest into the wall by bending your uninjured leg.
- You should feel the calf muscle on your extended leg stretch.
- Hold for 30 seconds and repeat 4 times to help your calf fully recover quickly.
- Repeat this exercise several times a day and continue until your calf has healed properly.
Exercise 2 for recovering calf muscle tear
This exercise to speed up recovery of a torn calf muscle can be performed when you can stand on your toes with no pain.
- Hold the back of a chair and gently rise up on your toes. Hold for 5 seconds.
- Lower yourself back down.
- Repeat 4 times to strengthen your calf muscles.
- Do this exercise 2 times a day.
- You should increase the length of time you hold your position by 5 seconds every week.
- Continue the calf muscle strengthening exercise until the muscles in the back of your leg have fully recovered.
How to Prevent Calf Muscle Injuries
To prevent bad calf muscle strains and tears, it is very important to warm up before taking part in strenuous activity.
According to the Journal of the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons, injury to your calf muscles can be prevented by avoiding over-straining your calf muscles. You should also have an adequate warm-up routine before exercising or running to help avoid injury to your calves.14
When to See a Doctor for Calf Muscle Injury
Full recovery from a serious calf muscle strain or tear may take many weeks or even months. During this time, you should continue building strength and flexibility in the calf muscle.
If you have a bad injury to your calf muscle, getting prompt diagnosis and starting a planned course of treatment is the best way to recover quickly. Therefore, if you suffer a calf injury, doctors from Harvard Medical say that you should visit your doctor promptly in the following circumstances:15
- You hear the calf muscle pop at the time of injury.
- The calf area of your injured leg becomes discolored, starts to swell, and you have severe leg pain.
- You have difficulty walking or putting any weight on your leg.
- You only have a grade 1 calf muscle injury but thepulled calf muscle symptoms don’t improve within 48 hours of using PRICE methods.
Read my other related articles:
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- The Top 17 Essential Oils for Muscle Pain Relief
- 10 Exercises to Tone Your Legs and Butt At Home