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Calf Pain

Common Causes of Calf Pain


Updated July 16, 2014

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

The region of the body commonly referred to as the calf is in the back of the leg, just below the knee. The calf is made of three major muscles. These muscles are the two gastrocnemius muscles (medial and lateral), and the soleus muscle. Another smaller muscle, called the plantaris muscle, is also in the calf.

While muscle injuries are the most common cause of calf pain, there are other causes of calf pain due to circulation problems, knee joint problems, and other conditions. Determining the cause of your calf pain can help guide appropriate treatment. Some common causes of calf pain include:

  • Calf Muscle Strain
    A calf muscle strain is the most common cause of acute onset calf pain. Usually this injury occurs during a sports or exercise activity. Common symptoms of a calf strain include pain, swelling, and bruising.

  • Plantaris Muscle Rupture
    The plantaris muscle is a thin, small muscle that is not even present in about 10% to 20% of the population. The muscle runs along the gastrocnemius muscle, but is a tiny fraction of the size. The plantaris muscle can rupture, causing a sudden, snapping pain in the back of the leg. Because the muscle is of no functional importance, treatment is non-operative.

  • Achilles Tendonitis/Rupture
    The Achilles tendon is the connection of the calf muscles to the heel. Calf pain is usually considered pain in the softer, muscular portion of the lower leg, whereas an Achilles tendon rupture typically causes pain in the back of the heel. Achilles ruptures that occur higher up on the tendon should be considered in the evaluation of calf pain.

  • Baker's Cyst
    A Baker's cyst is not a true cyst, rather it is a collection of knee joint fluid that has pooled in the back of the knee. When excessive amounts of fluid accumulate, it can cause pain in the back of the leg. Occasionally, the Baker's cyst will rupture causing the fluid to enter the calf region.

  • Blood Clots
    A blood clot needs to be considered as a cause of calf pain, especially when the calf pain is not the immediate result of an injury. Blood clots can form is the deep veins of the leg, causing a blockage in circulation. This may cause swelling and pain in the calf. Blood clots are more common in the days and weeks after injuries and surgical procedures.

  • Leg Cramps
    Cramps in the leg muscles are a common cause of calf pain. Usually the symptoms are intermittent (not constant pain), and relieved by stretching and heat application.

When should I see a doctor about calf pain?
If you are unsure of the cause of your symptoms, or if you do not know the specific treatment recommendations for your condition, you should seek medical attention. Treatment of calf pain must be directed at the specific cause of your problem. Some signs that you should be seen by a doctor include:

    • Inability to walk comfortably on the affected side
    • Injury that causes deformity of the lower leg
    • Calf pain that occurs at night or while resting
    • Calf pain that persists beyond a few days
    • Swelling of the calf or ankle joint area
    • Signs of an infection, including fever, redness, warmth
    • Any other unusual symptoms

Treatments for Calf Pain

Treatment of calf pain depends entirely on the cause of the problem. Therefore, it is of utmost importance that you understand the cause of your symptoms before embarking on a treatment program. If you are unsure of your diagnosis, or the severity of your condition, you should seek medical advice before beginning any treatment plan.

Some common treatments for calf pain are listed here. Not all of these treatments are appropriate for every condition, but they may be helpful in your situation.

  • Rest: The first treatment for most common conditions that cause calf pain is to rest the muscles, and allow the acute inflammation to subside. Often this is the only step needed to relieve calf pain. If the symptoms are severe, crutches may be helpful as well.

  • Ice and Heat Application: Ice packs and heat pads are among the most commonly used treatments for calf pain. So which one is the right one to use, ice or heat? And how long should the ice or heat treatments last?

  • Stretching: Stretching the muscles and tendons of the calf can help with some causes of calf pain. A good routine should be established, and following some specific suggestions will help you on your way.

  • Physical Therapy: Physical therapy is an important aspect of treatment of almost all orthopedic conditions. Physical therapists use different techniques to increase strength, regain mobility, and help return patients to their pre-injury level of activity.

  • Anti-Inflammatory Medication: Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medications, commonly referred to as NSAIDs, are some of the most commonly prescribed medications, especially for patients with calf pain caused by acute inflammation.
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