The calf is comprised of two muscles — the gastrocnemius and the soleus. These muscles meet at the Achilles tendon, which attaches directly to the heel. Any leg or foot motion uses these muscles.

Calf pain varies from person to person, but it typically feels like a dull, aching, or sharp pain, sometimes with tightness, in the back of the lower leg. Symptoms that might indicate a more severe condition include:

  • swelling
  • unusual coolness or pale color in the calf
  • tingling or numbness in the calf and leg
  • weakness of the leg
  • fluid retention
  • redness, warmth, and tenderness of the calf

If you have any of these symptoms in addition to calf pain, you should visit your doctor.

Calf pain can result from a number of causes, including overworking the muscle, cramps, and foot conditions. While most cases of calf pain can be treated at home, other causes may require immediate medical attention.

1. Muscle cramp

Muscle cramps are sudden, painful contractions of the muscles. They can be brief or last for several minutes at a time. Cramps are common, and they’re generally caused by exercising more than normal or doing new exercises. Cramps can also be triggered by dehydration, muscle injuries, and mineral deficiencies. More serious causes of muscle cramps are:

In more severe cases, limited blood flow to parts of the body and other serious medical conditions can cause muscle cramps.

2. Muscle strain

Muscle strains usually occur as a result of fatigue, overuse, or improper use of a muscle. For example, starting a new exercise regimen or increasing exercises that heavily involve the legs, such as running, swimming, biking, and powerlifting, can strain your calf muscle. You’ll usually feel a muscle strain as it occurs and notice the sudden onset of pain, soreness, and limited range of movement. Mild to moderate strains can be successfully treated at home with ice, heat, and anti-inflammatory medications. Severe strains or tears may require medical treatment.

3. Achilles tendonitis

Achilles tendonitis is caused by overuse, strain, or stress on the Achilles tendon. Common symptoms include inflammation of the tendon, pain in the back of the leg, swelling, and limited range of motion when flexing your foot. Simple home treatments like R.I.C.E. can help. However, if home treatment doesn’t work or your pain gets worse, it’s important to see a doctor.

4. Sciatica

Sciatica is a result of issues with the sciatic nerve — a nerve that controls muscles in the lower leg and back of the knee. It can cause pain, numbness, and tingling in the lower back that can stretch down the leg to the calf and other muscles. In more severe cases, surgery may be necessary to treat sciatica. Check out these six stretches for sciatica pain relief.

5. Contusion

A contusion, or bruise, is the result of trauma, like a fall, cut, or blow. The trauma causes capillaries beneath the skin to burst, which causes discoloration. Bruises typically heal on their own. You should see a doctor if you have unexplained bruising or bruises that reappear in the same area without injury.

6. Diabetic peripheral neuropathy

Diabetic peripheral neuropathy (DPN) is a form of nerve damage that affects the feet, legs, arms and hands. This condition is a common complication of diabetes resulting from overexposure to high blood sugar, genetic factors, or nerve inflammation. Other symptoms of DPN include:

  • sharp pain
  • muscle cramps
  • muscle weakness
  • loss of balance and coordination
  • numbness
  • reduced ability to feel pain or temperature changes

7. Deep vein thrombosis

Deep vein thrombosis (DVT) is the result of a blood clot forming in the deep vein in the arm or leg, including the calf. There are numerous factors and conditions that can cause DVT. Some include, sitting for long periods of time, medication complications, and smoking. Symptoms of DVT include:

  • visible veins in the affected area
  • swelling
  • leg tenderness
  • skin discoloration
  • feeling of warmth in the calf

You should see your doctor immediately if you develop symptoms of DVT.

8. Compartment syndrome

Compartment syndrome is a serious condition that happens when a large amount of pressure builds up inside a muscle compartment. Typically, this occurs after you’ve experienced major injury to the area, like a fracture or broken bone. Symptoms of compartment syndrome can include:

  • severe pain that doesn’t improve after rest or medication
  • numbness
  • trouble moving the affected area
  • a noticeable bulge in the affected muscle

Treatment methods for calf pain vary depending on the cause, but most causes can be addressed at home. For calf pain caused by overuse or mild to moderate trauma, here are a few tips:

  • R.I.C.E. (rest, ice, compression, and elevation): Icing and elevating the leg are two common principles of R.I.C.E. that are useful for calf pain. Try elevating your leg at or above the level of your heart to get swelling to decrease. Applying an ice pack in 20-minute intervals may also help.
  • OTC medications: Calf pain can also be soothed from taking common pain relievers such as ibuprofen or naproxen.
  • Stretching: Light stretching can help ease calf pain. After the symptoms subside slightly, you should stretch your calf muscles. Common exercises to accomplish this include:

For more, check out these leg and ankle stretches.

For more serious injuries, your doctor might recommend physical therapy.

For calf pain caused by conditions like DVT, compartment syndrome, or DPN, medical intervention, including surgery and medications, will be required. If pain becomes more severe or does not subside within a few days, you should talk to your doctor.

Here are a few tips that should help prevent calf pain:

  • Stretch. One of the most important prevention methods of calf pain is stretching. Stretching before and after all workouts helps repair and strengthen the calf, therefore preventing future pain and injury. Make sure you have enough time to rest between workouts to help facilitate this muscle repair and growth.
  • Stay hydrated. Staying hydrated is another key way to prevent calf pain. This is because dehydration directly contributes to muscle cramps. Check out seven other benefits of drinking enough water.
  • Gradually increase exercise. It’s important when starting or increasing exercise to do it gradually. Increasing your activity level too abruptly can cause injury. Find an exercise plan online or work with a trainer.