Calf strains are a very common sports injury
There are two main calf muscles, Gastrocnemius and Soleus, which are under repetitive load when we run. There are two reasons for this, the first one is to absorb the shock of our body weight during landing, and the second is to help move us forward into our next stride.
The calf is commonly injured in sports that require quick acceleration or push off from a stationary position, e.g. hockey, tennis, squash, football and basketball. Another common cause of the injury is when walking or running and you step onto a kerb or uneven ground. If unexpected or unbalanced, the heel may drop backwards, causing a sudden forceful calf stretch. The pain from this action may be felt immediately and indicate a calf strain.
Just as your calf is designed to absorb shock and propel us forward, the muscles above and below the calf are stabilising muscles. These are responsible for keeping the ankle, knee and hip joints stable during movement so that your calf can carry out its main function. However, if your muscles aren’t up to the job, particularly at the foot and ankle, the calf will begin to try and take on a stabilizing role. It isn’t designed to do this, so it gets overworked or injured.
Signs and Symptoms
Symptoms of a calf strain can vary significantly but usually involve a sudden sharp pain at the back of the lower leg. The calf muscle will often be tender to touch at the point of injury and swelling, and bruising may appear within hours or days. Walking may be painful, especially walking or standing on your tip toes.
Depending on how bad the calf injury is, you may be able to continue exercising with some discomfort or tightness during or after the session. When injuries are more severe, you will recall the exact moment when the injury occurred – you may hear a “pop” and may not be unable to walk due to severe pain.
Like with most injuries RICE for the first 48-72 hours. The aim is to reduce the bleeding and damage in the muscle. The leg should be rested in an elevated position with an ice pack applied for 20 minutes, every two hours. A correctly sized compression bandage should be applied to limit bleeding and swelling in the injured area. Following this, physiotherapy assessment and treatment including a rehab program can be done. This may include:
- Soft tissue massage – The benefits of massage are stimulating blood flow, micro-stretching the muscle and releasing areas of spasm (removing muscle knots) in the muscle.
- Taping – Rigid tape or “Rocktape” can be used to help support and take the strain of your injured muscle
- Strengthening – a series of progressive strengthening exercises is imperative to assist with the scar tissue formation and muscle repair, strengthening of not only your calf muscle, but also your stabilising muscles including your glutes
- Stretching – gentle stretching to assist the muscle to return to its original length is essential and goes a long way to preventing re-injury
- Dry Needling – like the effects of soft tissue massage, dry needling helps to stimulate blood flow and releases tight spots in the muscle that may have contributed to the strain in the first place or may have developed post injury
- Passive joint mobilisation – This involves your physio applying manual pressure to stretch the ankle joints in a way that improves the ankle joint range of motion. Mobilisations address any restrictions in ankle joint range of motion.
Research conducted has found that the stronger these muscles are, the more likely you will gain a successful outcome – not only injury recovery, injury prevention but also importantly your performance.