A calf strain is an injury to the muscles within the calf and at the back of the lower leg.
All muscles will have limits as to how far they can stretch and if the muscle gets forced beyond their limit, it could cause a tear. A muscle can also tear if it contracts too strongly for the tissues to cope. This can happen through activities that require you to push off quickly or control a landing such as sprinting or jumping down from a height.
What are the symptoms?
When a calf injury occurs, many people describe the sensation to feel like “being hit on the back of the leg.” Common symptoms are:
- pain in the calf
- swelling and bruising in the calf
- difficulty with putting the heel down and pushing off with the toes when walking
- reduced range of movement of the ankle joint.
Physiotherapy and recovery
Calf strains will usually settle down within 6 to 12 weeks; your recovery time can vary depending on the injury. If your calf does not settle down in the time you would expect, or you are having problems returning back to normal activities at work or your chosen sport, please contact your physiotherapist.
The initial focus of physiotherapy is to control the pain, reduce the swelling and to start early movement of the ankle joint to prevent stiffness and muscle weakness. The Acronym (MICE) can help you with this:
Movement- When you feel able, you can start gradually building up your walking distance and start moving the ankle by doing the exercises.
Ice can be effective for pain relief and can be applied for a couple of days after the injury. Wrap the ice in a damp tea towel and apply every 1-2 hours for 10-20 minutes. If the area becomes itchy or the pain increases, remove it.
Compression may be effective for pain relief and swelling. Tubigrip or a neoprene brace can be used and should feel tight, but not so much that you feel numbness or an increase in pain.
Elevation- supporting your ankle on pillows- above the heart level- may help with the pain and swelling. In addition, relaxing the muscles can help to encourage circulation and allow the fluid to drain faster – you can do this for your calf by moving the foot up and down slowly.
Compression and elevation can be performed in between periods of ice.
Early strengthening exercises
Below are some early strengthening exercises you can start as soon you feel able. You may experience some discomfort whilst performing some of the exercises and this may persist for some time after finishing them. How much and how long the pain lasts for is something you will discuss with your physiotherapist, but usually if the pain and the length of the time the pain lasts for is acceptable to you, then it’s fine.
The pain you may experience after the exercises does not mean you are damaging anything. You can progress yourself gradually through the exercises as your pain, technique and swelling allows. This means if you have good technique, and you don’t experience any severe reactions like unacceptable pain and swelling after the exercises then you can progress yourself onto the next video.
Return to impact and running
Below are some exercise videos which will help you to strengthen and increase power in your calf through jumping and hopping drills. This will form part of the later stages of your rehabilitation. These exercises will help you return to sport as it is important to get your calf muscle and tendon used to the individual demands of your chosen activites. If you are unsure if you are ready to start these exercises or return to sport, you can discuss this with your physiotherapist.