Treat and prevent a calf strain with these strategies.
The symptoms of mild (grade 1) calf strains include a twinge of pain in the back of the lower leg, with tightness and discomfort for 2 to 5 days afterward. Severe (grade 3) strains are marked by immediate excruciating pain, usually at the V in the calf muscles, along with an inability to contract the muscles. Bruising and swelling can appear later.
What’s Going On In There?
The calf muscles are the gastrocnemius (the larger one, which attaches above the knee joint) and the soleus (the smaller one, attaching below the knee joint). Both attach to the heel via the Achilles tendon.
Muscle strains happen when you sprint and the muscle isn’t prepared for the effort expended. Contributing factors include overuse, muscle weakness or tightness, and overtaxing a “cold” muscle.
Dynamic rest. Avoid lower-leg work as much as possible. Do core and upper-body work to maintain your fitness.
Ice it. Ice the muscles for 15- to 20-minute stretches during the first 24 hours to help reduce pain, inflammation and muscle spasm.
Try a compression bandage. Compression can help keep swelling down during the first 24 to 48 hours after the injury. Compression sleeves are easiest, and elastic bandages work, too, but be sure not to wrap it too tightly. If your foot turns color or gets cold, it’s not getting enough blood.
Elevate it. This can help draw fluid away from the injury. Try to keep your lower leg higher than your hip as much as possible during the first 48 hours after the injury.
Shorten the muscle. For the first couple days after the injury, heel pads can raise the heel, shortening the muscle to reduce the strain on it.
Try an NSAID. An anti-inflammatory like ibuprofen or naproxen can help.
Work on flexibility. Stretch the gastrocnemius by sitting on the floor with your leg straight out in front of you. Pull your toes and foot back, hold for several seconds, and relax. Repeat 10 times. To stretch the soleus, sit on the floor with your knees bent. Support yourself with your hands behind you as you lean back, lift your leg and point your toes toward the ceiling, holding for several seconds. Repeat 10 times. Another good option? Regular yoga practice.
The best way to prevent a calf strain in the first place is building limber lower legs. An underlying lack of flexibility in your calf muscles and Achilles tendon is usually the primary cause of lower-leg problems.