This week, I look at how to help when you have a calf muscle tear or strain.
A calf strain/tear affects the muscles at the back of the lower leg and tends to come about due to a sudden excessive force through the muscle, or with repetitive overuse.
The calf is a group of muscles that allow you to point your foot, generating the propulsive forces that help you to walk, run and jump. The largest of the calf muscles are the gastrocnemius and the soleus and therefore generate the greatest force. They are also the most vulnerable and are susceptible to injury when individuals are starting a new sport or returning to sport after a period of rest. Sports that involve high propulsion bursts of activity such as tennis, squash, hockey and sprinting are activities that often lead to calf strain. Injuries to the calf muscle tend to occur when there has been inadequate preparation including stretching of the calf muscles and strengthening throughout all range of movement of the ankle.
Injury to the calf often involves a tearing of the gastrocnemius and/or soleus muscles. It can feel like someone has hit you in the back of the leg with a cricket ball and sometimes there is a ‘popping’ noise or sensation. Either way, once injured, bruising, and swelling can appear in the calf tracking to the ankle and toes over the following days. You will also experience pain, particularly when walking or performing any activity that uses the affected muscles. The severity of your injury will dictate your recovery which can range from 2 to 6 weeks or more. Your post-injury care will play a pivotal role in the length of your recovery and the appropriate management, your injury should settle back to normal.
Muscles have a large blood supply which tends to mean an injury to these muscles can heal quickly but conversely can cause a lot of bleeding and bruising.
Initial treatment, what can you do?
As with many injuries the first rule is the apply ice to help control and minimize the swelling and bruising. Apply ice in a damp cloth for 10-20 minutes 3-4 times a day particularly in the first few days. If the swelling is persistent then this can continue for up to a week. Monitor your skin to avoid an ice burn. Elevate your leg when you are resting to help control the swelling and limit your activity in the first few days to allow the healing process to kick in.
Your recovery will depend on the extent of the injury. Recovery will include a graduated return to walking and normal daily activities and eventually to your sport. It is well recognized that if your walking pattern remains abnormal for more than 2 weeks you may start to experience other issues including back pain. This can be helped by trying non weight bearing activities to keep you active, such as swimming.
Start your exercise recovery with a few simple exercises to get your ankle moving and the muscles working and improve feelings of stiffness in the calf.
As you improve and you begin walking unaided you can start some heel raises and gentle calf stretches. Below are a few exercises to start with.
- Ankle pumps and circles
- Heel raises
- Calf stretches
As you continue to recover your post-injury recovery program should include graduated loading of the calf muscles, strengthening around the knee and hip, balance exercises and training to adapt to different reaction speeds and changes of direction. This will be during your daily activities such as going up and down stairs and progress to your sport during training sessions and then at your competitive level.
Hope this helps, Deb