Calf Muscles 101: What You Need to Know
It’s a beautiful day on the tennis court.
You’re up 45-15, and the ball comes sailing across the net, perfectly aimed for you to return the shot.
You gracefully (of course) lunge to the right to return the ball and…..feel a searing pain in your lower leg.
Calf muscles. We all have shapely bits of flesh tacked onto our lower legs, and maybe some of you even spend time in the gym sculpting them into a more pleasing form.
But what do the calves DO, why do they hurt so much sometimes, and how can we treat calf injury and prevent problems from recurring?
What are the calf muscles?
Calf muscles are certainly not the largest muscles in our body. But they manipulate two joints and keep us standing, walking, running, jumping, and dancing. It’s a tall order for a seemingly small group of muscles.
Our legs and feet take a beating every day, and calf injury and dysfunction is common and can keep us laid up for extended periods.
But exactly what makes up our calves?
The calf is the back portion of the lower leg and consists of three main structures:
● Gastrocnemius muscle - This is the muscle we think of when we think about the calf. It’s the larger muscle on the back of the lower leg that provides the rounded shape.
● Soleus muscle - Soleus is a flat muscle (shaped like a fillet of sole) located beneath the gastroc.
● Achilles tendon - The gastroc and soleus merge together and transition into the achilles tendon. The achilles tendon then attaches to the main heel bone.
Why is it called the calf?
If you are at all like me, you’re not thinking, “That’s interesting. Thanks for the information.” Instead you’re thinking “Where the heck does it get its name, then, if none of the structures that make it up have the word “calf” in it?”
Full disclosure...I had to look this up, but still couldn’t find a definitive answer.
Apparently, the word “calf,” in reference to the back of the lower leg, appears as far back as the 14th century and is derived from the Old Norse “kalfi” and possibly related to the Irish Gaelic word "calpa."
As to why it’s called a calf, there doesn’t seem to be a consensus. Some argue that the shape of the muscle resembles a young calf (the animal). Another idea is that it’s related to being a separate, smaller version of a whole (akin to an iceberg broken off of a glacier).
How’s that for a non-specific answer? Moving on...
Calf muscles cross both the knee and ankle joints.
Gastroc starts above the knee joint and ends at the achilles. It affects the knee (bends the knee) and ankle (lifts the heel).
Soleus starts on the lower leg and ends at the achilles. It affects the ankle (lifts the heel).
The achilles tendon is the largest and strongest tendon in the body and connects the calf muscles to the foot so we can walk (and jump, and dance, and run). It transfers all the power of the calf muscles to the foot.
Types of calf pain
Pain in the calf can range from dull soreness to constant throbbing to sharp and searing depending on the cause.
Calf injuries are very common and can be a result of accident, injury, overuse, or other medical reasons. But injuries aren’t limited to sports-related activity or accidents. Tight calves due to lack of stretching can also cause a large amount of discomfort and affect our ability to do the things we like to do!
Common calf injuries
Sometimes, calf pain is the result of a problem with the muscle or tendon itself, and other times calf pain is a side effect of another problem.
● Calf strain
● Plantar fasciitis (pain in the bottom of the foot)
● Achilles tendonitis
● Charley horse/cramp
Non-muscular causes of calf pain
● Blood clot
● Baker’s cyst
● Nerve pain
When should I see a doctor for calf pain?
Seek medical attention if there was no obvious event that caused your pain or you do not know the recommended treatment. Sudden onset of pain without warning or unusual symptoms is always a cause for concern.
Some medical conditions like diabetes or cancer can cause calf pain, so always contact your doctor if symptoms begin or increase without warning.
Calf pain treatment
Obviously, the most effective treatment for calf pain depends on the reason. But let’s talk about common treatments for the muscle/tendon injuries we discussed above.
The first (and often very effective, not to mention cheap!) treatment for almost any injury is to rest the area. Don’t use the muscle and allow time for the inflammation to subside. A rest period may also include ice, elevation, or a therapy tool like a boot depending on the nature of the injury.
Calf muscles are typically overstressed and under stretched. Along with massage, daily stretching can help to provide big relief! The good news is that stretching your calves only takes a few minutes and can be done while watching TV or waiting for the coffee to finish brewing.
If you suffer from consistently tight or sore calf muscles, stretching alone often isn’t enough to keep it at bay. In addition to stretching, you can use a stick roller or foam roller to massage your calves.
But often the most effective approach is treatment by a massage therapist. I’ll be able to get at the muscles from all angles as well as release tension in the surrounding leg muscles. I can often do this in a much less painful and more relaxing way than if you used a foam roller.
This means a more balanced treatment and longer-lasting relief.
PT is often appropriate for severe issues like an achilles tendon tear or chronic sports-related issues. Physical therapy can help identify patterns of weakness or overcompensation and teach you more productive patterns of movement so you can avoid injury in the future. Massage therapy is often used in conjunction with physical therapy to help address surrounding tightness and help to move inflammation out of the affected area.
Need help with calf pain?
I’d love to help you manage that pesky calf pain and get you back in the swing of things again pain free. Set it up here.