Your calves are located at the back of your lower legs. The muscles in your calves are vital for activities like walking, running, and jumping. They’re also responsible for helping you bend your foot downward or stand on your tiptoes.
Sometimes, you may feel calf pain when you walk. This can be due to a variety of causes. In this article, we’ll take a closer look at the most common causes of calf pain when walking, the treatment options, and when to call your doctor.
There are a variety of reasons why you may feel calf pain when you walk. Some causes are due to common muscle conditions, while others may be due to an underlying health condition.
Below, we’ll explore what can cause this type of pain, the symptoms you may feel, and any preventive steps you can take.
Muscle cramps happen when your muscles contract involuntarily. They most commonly affect your legs, including your calves. These cramps often happen when you’re walking, running, or engaging in some type of physical activity.
Muscle cramps can have many causes, though sometimes the cause is unknown. Some of the most common causes include:
- not stretching properly before physical activity
- overuse of your muscles
- low electrolyte levels
- low blood supply to the muscles
The main symptom of muscle cramping is pain, which can range in intensity from mild to severe. The affected muscle may also feel hard to the touch.
A cramp can last anywhere from a few seconds to several minutes.
An injury to your calf muscle can also lead to pain when walking. The most common injuries that can cause pain in your lower legs include bruises and strains.
- A bruise happens when a blow to the body damages the underlying muscle and other tissues without breaking the skin.
- A strain occurs when a muscle is overused or overstretched, causing damage to the muscle fibers.
Common symptoms of a calf muscle injury include:
- pain in the affected area, which often occurs with movement
- a visible bruise
Many bruises or strains can be treated at home. However, more serious injuries may need to be evaluated by a doctor.
You can help prevent calf muscle injuries by:
PAD is caused by damage to your arteries, which can be a result of:
If you have PAD, you may experience intermittent claudication, or pain when you walk or climb stairs that goes away with rest. This is because your muscles aren’t getting enough blood. This is due to blood vessels that have become narrowed or blocked.
Other symptoms of PAD include:
The management of PAD is lifelong and is aimed at slowing the progression of the condition. To prevent PAD from progressing, it’s important to:
- take steps to manage and monitor your glucose levels, cholesterol levels, and blood pressure
- not smoke
- get regular exercise
- focus on a heart-healthy diet
- maintain a healthy weight
Chronic venous insufficiency (CVI) is when your blood has trouble flowing back to your heart from your legs.
Valves in your veins typically help keep blood flowing. But with CVI, these valves are less functional. This can lead to backflow or pooling of blood in your legs.
With CVI, you may feel pain in your legs when walking that eases when you rest or elevate your legs. Additional symptoms can include:
- calves that feel tight
- varicose veins
- swelling in your legs or ankles
- cramping or muscle spasms
- discolored skin
- ulcers on your legs
CVI needs to be treated to prevent complications like leg ulcers or deep vein thrombosis. The recommended treatment will depend on the severity of the condition.
Lumbar spinal stenosis is when pressure is placed on the nerves in your lower back due to the narrowing of your spinal canal. It’s often caused by issues like degenerative disc disease or the formation of bone spurs.
Lumbar spinal stenosis can cause pain or cramping in your calves or thighs when walking. The pain may ease when you bend forward, sit, or lie down.
Generally, lumbar spinal stenosis is managed through conservative measures, such as physical therapy and pain management. Severe cases may require surgery.
Chronic exertional compartment syndrome (CECS) is when a specific group of muscles, called a compartment, swells during exertion. This leads to an increase in pressure within the compartment, which decreases blood flow and leads to pain.
CECS most often affects people who do activities with repetitive leg motions, like fast walking, running, or swimming.
If you have CECS, you may experience pain in your calves during physical activity. The pain typically goes away when the activity stops. Other symptoms may include:
- muscle bulging
- trouble moving your foot
CECS usually isn’t serious, and the pain goes away when you rest. You can help prevent CECS by avoiding the types of activities that cause pain.
Make an appointment with your doctor if you have calf pain when walking that:
- doesn’t improve or gets worse with a few days of at-home care
- makes moving around or performing daily activities difficult
- affects your range of movement
Seek prompt medical attention if you notice:
- swelling in one or both legs
- a leg that’s unusually pale or cool to the touch
- calf pain that occurs after a long period of sitting, such as after a long plane trip or car ride
- signs of infection, including fever, redness, and tenderness
- any leg symptoms that develop suddenly and can’t be explained by a specific event or condition
To diagnose the cause of your calf pain, your doctor will first take your medical history and perform a physical examination. They may also use additional tests to help diagnose your condition. These tests may include:
- Imaging. Using imaging technology like X-ray, CT scan, or ultrasound can help your doctor better visualize the structures in the affected area.
- Ankle-brachial index. An ankle-brachial index compares the blood pressure in your ankle with the blood pressure in your arm. It can help determine how well blood is flowing in your limbs.
- Treadmill test. While monitoring you on a treadmill, your doctor can get an idea of how severe your symptoms are and what level of physical activity brings them on.
- Blood tests. Blood tests can check for high cholesterol, diabetes, and other underlying conditions.
- Electromyography (EMG). EMG is used to record the electrical activity of your muscles. Your doctor may use this if they suspect a problem with nerve signaling.
The treatment of calf pain will depend on the condition or issue that’s causing the pain. Potential treatment may include:
- Medications. If you have an underlying condition that’s contributing to your calf pain, your doctor may prescribe medication to treat it. One example is medication to lower blood pressure or cholesterol in PAD.
- Physical therapy. Physical therapy can help improve flexibility, strength, and movement. Your doctor may recommend this type of therapy to help with conditions like:
- muscle injuries
- lumbar spinal stenosis
- Surgery. In severe cases, surgery may be recommended. Examples include:
- Lifestyle changes. Your doctor may recommend that you make some lifestyle changes to help manage your condition or prevent it from worsening. Recommended lifestyle changes may include:
If your calf pain isn’t too severe, there are self-care measures you can try at home to manage the pain. Some options you can try include:
- Rest. If you’ve injured your calf, try to rest it for a couple of days. Avoid long periods of not moving it at all, as this can reduce blood flow to the muscles and prolong healing.
- Cold. Consider applying a cold compress to calf muscles that are sore or tender.
- Over-the-counter (OTC) medications. Medications like ibuprofen (Motrin, Advil) and acetaminophen (Tylenol) may help with pain and swelling.
- Compression. In cases of a calf injury, wrapping your calf with a soft bandage may help. Using compression stockings can also work to promote blood flow in CVI.
- Elevation. Elevating an injured calf above the level of your hips can ease pain and swelling. Leg elevation may also help relieve symptoms of CVI.
Sometimes, you may experience calf pain that happens when you’re walking. Many times, this pain eases or goes away completely when you rest.
There are several common causes for this type of pain, such as muscle cramps, bruises, or strains.
However, calf pain when walking can be also caused by underlying conditions that affect your blood vessels or nerves. Examples of these conditions include peripheral artery disease (PAD), chronic venous insufficiency (CVI), and lumbar spinal stenosis.
You may be able to ease mild calf pain at home by resting, applying ice, and using OTC medications. See your doctor if your pain doesn’t improve with at-home care, gets worse, or affects your daily activities.