A pulled or strained calf muscle affects the muscles and tendons in the back of the lower leg.
A person may feel pain in the:
- gastrocnemius muscle
- soleus muscle
- plantaris muscle
- Achilles tendon
A strain refers to an injured muscle or tendon. Tendons are the cords of tissue that connect muscles to bones. A strain occurs when the fibers of the muscle or tendon partially or completely tear.
This article discusses the symptoms of a pulled calf muscle and explains how doctors diagnose and treat it. It also provides a list of useful stretches that people can use to aid recovery.
The symptoms of a pulled calf muscle vary depending on the severity of the injury. Mild muscle strain can cause pain that feels similar to post-workout soreness.
A severe strain can cause intense, even debilitating, pain that can make walking difficult or impossible until the muscle heals.
Other symptoms of a strained calf muscle include:
- swelling and redness
- difficulty moving the leg and decreased mobility
- weakness in the calf muscle
- pain, particularly when trying to move the muscle
In general, someone with a pulled or strained calf muscle should rest to prevent further damage to the muscle.
A doctor may recommend additional treatments and medications depending on the severity of the injury.
The following treatments
- Ice and heat therapy: During the first 2 days, people should apply a cold compress to the calf for 20 minutes up to eight times per day. Doing so can help reduce inflammation and relieve muscle pain. After this time, hot packs can help ease muscle soreness and stiffness.
- Wraps and bandages: Wrapping the injured calf in an elastic bandage or compression sock can help prevent swelling and inflammation.
- Elevation of the injured leg: People can rest their leg on a pillow or a rolled-up blanket or towel. Doing this will help decrease swelling.
- Over-the-counter (OTC) pain relievers: People can take a pain reliever, such as ibuprofen, to relieve pain and reduce inflammation.
Depending on the severity of the injury, a pulled calf muscle can take several weeks or months to heal. A doctor may recommend surgery to treat a severely strained or torn calf muscle.
Muscle injuries can damage nearby blood vessels, which may cause localized bleeding under the skin.
Blood cells that collect in muscle tissue can form a hematoma or a blood clot. A doctor can use a minimally invasive procedure called aspiration to treat a hematoma.
Some activities, such as prolonged walking, running, or playing team sports, can further damage a pulled calf muscle. People should rest and avoid strenuous activity while their calf muscle heals.
However, it is possible to use gentle stretches and physical therapy to maintain mobility and stabilize the knee and ankle joints while the calf heals.
Helpful stretches include:
Standing wall stretch
To perform this stretch, a person should:
- Stand in front of a wall and place both hands firmly against the wall at shoulder level.
- Step the unaffected leg toward the wall while keeping the injured leg straight.
- Bend the front knee so the hips and chest move toward the wall. Gently deepen the bend to produce a light stretch in the back leg.
- Hold this position for 15–30 seconds and release.
Standing toe-raise stretch
To perform the standing toe-raise stretch, a person should:
- Find a wall, countertop, or chair to hold on to for balance.
- Place a book or similar-size object on the floor.
- Place the balls of the feet on top of the book and keep the heels on the floor.
- Carefully lean forward while keeping the knees straight.
- For a deeper stretch, try using a thicker book.
To perform this exercise, a person should:
- Stand facing a wall, countertop, or chair back to hold on to for balance.
- Lift the body up on the balls of the feet.
- Hold this position for 3–5 seconds, and then lower the heels to the ground.
- For an extra stretch, try doing the heel raise while standing on a block or heavy book.
For the foot flexion, a person should:
- Sit on the floor with both legs straight in front of the body.
- Reach forward and wrap a resistance band, pair of tights, or other rolled-up cloth around the feet.
- Keeping the legs straight, gently flex the foot backward while keeping the heel on the floor.
- Try to pull the toes toward the body to deepen the stretch.
- Hold the stretch for 3–5 seconds.
Several types of events can cause a person to pull or strain their calf muscle. Some examples of how a person may pull their calf
- not warming up before exercising
- participating in strenuous sporting activities
- putting too much strain on the calf muscle
- not wearing proper footwear while running or participating in sports or strenuous activities
- recovering from a recent injury
To diagnose a pulled calf muscle, a doctor typically needs to perform a physical examination, during which they will check for swelling, bruising, and redness. They may also ask the person to describe any recent changes to their physical activity routine.
Muscle injuries fall into three broad categories, or
- Grade 1 (mild): Grade 1 injuries cause minimal muscle damage, although there may be a sharp pain at the time of the injury. This type of injury carries a low risk of long-term complications.
- Grade 2 (moderate): Grade 2 injuries cause moderate muscle damage, and people with this category of muscle injury may have difficulty walking. They will often experience a sharp pain that worsens when they flex or extend their foot.
- Grade 3 (severe): A grade 3 injury is a complete tear of the muscle, and it can cause significant bruising and swelling in the calf.
Most people with a pulled calf muscle will not need surgery. Resting the injured leg and keeping it elevated can help speed the recovery process.
People should wait until their calf muscle heals completely before resuming regular physical activities.
Using a muscle before it heals can prolong the recovery process of the initial injury. In some cases, it can even cause a second injury.
A person should talk with their doctor or physical therapist about how long it will take to recover from the strain. Recovery time can vary based on:
- the grade or severity of the injury
- how well a person can rest the muscle
- a person’s adherence to the treatment plan
According to FitToPlay, the average number of days a person has to sit out from a sport following a strain is about 13 days, with full recovery within 28 days. However, people with more serve injuries can take several months to fully recover.
Without treatment, a pulled calf muscle may recur or worsen over time.
Some potential complications
- formation of scar tissue
- chronic pain or dysfunction in muscle
- compartment syndrome
- formation of deep vein thrombosis (DVT)
Therefore, a person should seek medical attention shortly after sustaining an injury and begin resting the muscle immediately.
Other reasons to consider seeking medical attention for a pulled calf muscle include:
- sustaining another significant injury
- having little success with at-home treatments, such as resting, applying an ice pack, or using OTC pain relievers
A pulled calf muscle is a common injury, especially when a person does new or intense exercise.
In most cases, people can treat a pulled calf muscle at home with rest, cold and hot packs, compression, and elevation. A person may find over-the-counter pain medications helpful as well.
If the injury is severe or the pain does not improve over time, it is best to see a doctor for diagnosis and treatment.