The calf muscles play a significant role in our day to day lives. However, because of the workload done by the calves, there is a tendency for the muscle to get injured.
This article tells us a little about the calf muscles and what we need to know about a pulled calf muscle.
What Is A Pulled Calf Muscle?
A pulled calf muscle is when the calf muscles are pulled beyond their limit leading to a muscle strain.
The calf muscles are found at the back of the leg. These muscles are responsible for carrying the heel off the floor when we are walking, jumping or running. They also help to propel the body forward while walking and running.
These muscles help to pump blood against gravity back to the heart for the blood to be oxygenated.
The calf is made up of three major muscles:
These muscles are connected to the heel by the toughest tendon in the body, the Achilles Tendon.
Causes Of Pulled Calf Muscles
Using something for a long period of time will eventually make it stop working or break down. Using a car for a long period of time can lead to a breakdown. We tend to use our calf muscles all the time because of the kind of movements we do.
Activities that involve a lot of action from the calf muscles like running places a lot of demand on the calf muscles which will eventually lead to a pulled calf muscle.
2. Improper warm-up
Warming up is a major part of the exercise regimen that is very necessary for optimal muscle health. Warm up prepares the muscles for any function or exertion that they may be performing, in sports or any other activity.
A warm-up increases blood flow to the muscles which “heat them up” and loosen them out to prevent injuries.
Not warming up and putting a lot of action on the calf muscle can lead to a pulled muscle.
3. Tight calf muscles
Having tight calf muscles make the muscles inefficient to do their work. When a muscle is tight, it is under a lot of tension and any sudden impact on the muscle can lead to a pulled muscle.
4. A sudden increase in exercise frequency
Imagine running 100m regularly and then suddenly you decide to push for 1500m without any form of training or preparation. This “surprises” your muscles and can lead to a pulled calf muscle.
5. Your type of footwear
A proper footwear is meant to balance out your foot to reduce the stress on the muscles in the legs. Wearing improper footwear throws the feet of balance and place a lot of stress on the calf muscles which can lead to a pulled calf muscle.
6. Muscle Strength Imbalance
The calf muscles assist the hamstrings in bending the knee joint. Weak hamstrings place a lot of tension on the calf muscles so instead of a 60-40 sharing formula between the hamstrings and calf muscles respectively, we may have a 40-60 which can lead to pulled calf muscles.
How Serious Can The Injury Be?
A pulled muscle is classified into three grades:
Only a few muscle fibres are stretched in this grade and the muscle strength is still intact. There is pain and tenderness.
More muscle fibres are torn at this level. There is swelling, pain with a bit of calf muscle weakness.
This grade is the most serious muscle injury. The muscle tears completely and a pop sound is usually heard. There is a loss of muscle function.
Symptoms Of Pulled Calf Muscles
- Pain at the back of the leg
- Difficulty standing on your toes
Doctors will advise that you run some tests to know the severity of the injury and the proper way of management.
X-rays are not usually recommended because it is a muscle injury but can be necessary to ensure that there is no fracture or dislocation that may happen at the knee or ankle joint.
An MRI can be used to locate the site of the injury and the severity.
DO NOT MASSAGE AN INJURED MUSCLE!!! Massage is usually done 3 days after the injury with topical gels with diclofenac or ibuprofen as the active ingredient. These topical gels are usually described as a cold type of gel.
A physiotherapist will recommend the type of topical gel to use and will also be the person to apply the gel and know at what stage of the injury massage is necessary.
Pain Relieving Medication
Over-the-counter analgesics are usually recommended to help relieve pain at the calf muscles. Medications like panadol, tylenol, ibuprofen or diclofenac are the major ones used.
Once the injury has happened, the calf muscles need to be protected from further injury. Because the calf muscles play a role in our walking and running, these activities need to be avoided to protect the muscles. Wearing a calf support will help.
Rest may seem similar to protect but they are not. While protect is preventing from further injury, rest is reducing the activities on that muscle like reducing your walking using crutches and reducing your exercises.
Ice packs relieve pain and reduce swelling at the calf muscles. It also helps to reduce any bleeding that may be happening at the calf muscles. This can be applied by using a moderate sized chunk of ice to massage the painful area for 5 minutes or crushed ice in a damp towel over the injured site for 15 minutes.
Compressions helps to reduce swelling. An elastic bandage is usually recommended. All you have to do is wrap the site of injury with the bandage and make sure it is not too tight.
Elevating the affected leg above your chest while lying on your back helps you to reduce the swelling as well.
A physiotherapists goal is to get you back to how you were prior to the injury. This is done by using treatment modalities to help with pain apart from ice. Heat therapy may be used to relieve pain.
Also, a physiotherapist will prescribe exercises that are peculiar to the stage of your injury. For example, exercises may not be recommended at the initial phase because of pain and swelling but as the injury heals, exercises will be added.
Exercises are necessary during the healing process of the injured calf muscles. Stretches need to be carried out to avoid a reduced range of movement at the joints and make our muscles healthy and flexible.
These exercises, however, should not be done unless it has been prescribed by your physiotherapist.
Calf Stretches In A Lying Position
- Sit up on the floor with your legs stretched out in front of you and your back straight
- You can rest your back against the wall
- Bend your ankle with your toes pointing towards you
- Hold for 20 seconds
- Repeat 3 – 5 times
This exercise can also be done to strengthen the calf muscles as well.
- Stand on the edge of a step or a step bench
- Let your heel be off the bench with only the balls of your feet on the bench
- Stand on your toes
- Slowly drop your heel till you feel a stretch in your calves
- Hold this position for 20 seconds
- Return to standing on your toes.
- You can hold on to something so you do not fall
Recovery time depends on the severity of the injury based on the grades mentioned earlier.
For a Grade I injury, the symptoms improve between 1 to 2 weeks while full recovery is usually 4 to 6 weeks.
For a Grade II injury, it may take up to 8 to 10 weeks.
For a Grade III injury, surgery is usually recommended.
Pulled calf muscles recover depending on how serious the injury is but it can reoccur and can happen to anyone. Here are some tips on how to prevent a recurrence:
- Warm up before any activity. Your muscles need to be prepared for any activity especially after an injury.
- Stretch before and every activity.
- Go for a regular checkup with your physiotherapist. Regular check up with your therapist enables you to know how far your calf muscles have gone and the intensity of activities that the muscle can handle.
- Wear proper shoes.
A pulled calf injury will recover well as long as effective treatment starts immediately.