A calf strain is a tear to one or both of the muscles at the back of the lower leg. We explain symptoms as well as treatment and rehabilitation exercises to return you back to full fitness.
Symptoms of a calf muscle strain can vary significantly but in general include a sudden sharp pain at the back of the lower leg. The calf muscle will be tender to touch at the point of injury and swelling and bruising may appear.
Depending on how bad the calf injury is the athlete may be able to continue in some discomfort or they may be unable to walk in severe pain.
Calf strains are graded 1, 2 or 3 depending on how bad they are with a grade 3 being the most severe and painful.
How bad is my calf strain?
A calf muscle tear is graded from 1 to 3, with grade 3 being the most severe.
Grade 1 symptoms
Grade 1 calf strain is a minor tear with up to 10% of the muscle fibers effected. The athlete will feel a twinge of pain in the back of the lower leg. They may be able to carry on playing or competing in mild discomfort. There is likely to be tightness and aching in the calf muscles two to five days after injury.
Grade 2 symptoms
Symptoms of a grade 2 strain will be more severe than a grade one with up to 90% of the muscle fibers torn. A sharp pain at the back of the lower leg will be felt with significant pain walking. There is likely to be swelling in the calf muscle with mild to moderate bruising. Pain will be felt on resisted plantar flexion or pushing the foot downwards against resistance. There may be tightness and aching in the calf muscle for a week or more.
Grade 3 symptoms
There will be severe immediate pain at the back of the lower leg. The athlete will be unable to continue and unable to walk. There will be considerable bruising and swelling appearing and the athlete will be unable to even contract the calf muscle. In the case of a full rupture, often there is deformity where the muscle can be seen to be bunched up towards the top of the calf. A grade three is a near, or complete rupture of the muscle.
What can the athlete do?
Applying R.I.C.E. (Rest, Ice, Compression, Elevation) is essential. Cold therapy should be applied as soon as possible to help to quickly stop any internal bleeding. Ice can be applied for 10 to 15 minutes every hour initially reducing frequency as pain and swelling goes down.
Use a compression bandage, calf support or sleeve. A compression bandage can be applied immediately to help stop swelling but it should only be applied for 10 minutes at a time as restricting blood flow completely to the tissues could cause more damage.
Wear a heel pad to raise the heel and shorten the calf muscle hence taking some of the strain off it. It is a good idea to put heel pads in both shoes or one leg will be longer than the other creating an imbalance and possibly leading to other injuries including back injuries.
Peter O’ Grady will prescribe a full calf strain rehabilitation programme with calf stretching and strengthening exercises.
Once the initial healing has taken place it is essential the lower leg is fully strengthened in order to reduce the likelihood that the injury will reoccur or have an adverse effect on future performances.