Calf pain can result from muscle strain or cramps or occur due to another condition like sciatica. Treatment depends on the cause.
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.
Calf pain varies from person to person, depending on the source of pain, and can vary in nature. For some people, calf pain feels like a dull, aching, or sharp pain in the back of the lower leg, sometimes with tightness.
Symptoms that might indicate a more severe condition include:
- unusual coolness or pale color in the calf
- tingling or numbness in the calf and leg
- weakness in the leg that comes on suddenly
- fluid retention
- redness, warmth, and tenderness of the calf
You should visit a doctor if you have any of these symptoms in addition to calf pain.
Calf pain can result from several different causes and can be associated with other health conditions. While you can often treat calf pain at home, other instances may require immediate medical attention.
Here are some common conditions that can be associated with calf pain.
1. Muscle cramp
Muscle cramps are sudden, painful contractions of muscles. They can last for a few seconds or several minutes at a time.
Cramps can be caused by dehydration, exercise, injuries, and mineral deficiencies. They can also be associated with more serious conditions such as:
2. Muscle strain
Muscle strains usually occur due to fatigue, overuse, or improper use of a muscle. For example, starting a new exercise regimen or increasing exercises involving the legs can strain your calf muscle. This may include exercises like:
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 over-the-counter (OTC) pain medications like:
- ibuprofen (Advil)
- acetaminophen (Tylenol)
- naproxen (Aleve)
More severe strains or tears may require medical treatment.
3. Achilles tendonitis
Achilles tendonitis is caused by overuse, strain, or stress on the Achilles tendon, which connects the plantaris, gastrocnemius, and soleus muscles in the back of the ankle. Common symptoms can include:
- inflammation of the tendon
- stiffness in the back of the leg
Simple home treatments can help. These may include:
- reducing activity levels
- taking OTC pain medications
If home treatment doesn’t work or your pain worsens, it’s important to see a doctor.
Sciatica results from issues with the sciatic nerve. This nerve controls muscles in the lower leg and back of the knee. It can cause pain, numbness, and tingling in the lower back. It can stretch down the leg to the calf and other muscles.
Treatment to lower pain levels may include:
- hot or cold packs
- OTC pain medication
- physical therapy
- avoiding prolonged sitting or standing
A contusion, or bruise, is the result of trauma, like a fall 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 can affect the:
This condition is a common complication of diabetes. It can result from having high blood sugar for an extended period of time. This can result in nerve inflammation and damage. Genetic factors may also play a role.
It is important to see a doctor regularly if you have diabetes and symptoms of DPN. Gaining improved control over your blood glucose levels can lessen symptoms. A doctor may prescribe medications to help ease symptoms that disturb your sleep or daily activities.
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. Multiple factors and conditions can cause DVT. These may include:
- personal or family history of DVT
- being overweight / obesity
- complications from other conditions
Symptoms of DVT
- visible veins in the affected area
- swelling in the foot, ankle, or leg
- leg pain or tenderness
- skin discoloration
- the vein gets firm or thickens
- the affected area of skin feeling warmer to the touch than the surrounding area
- the affected area turning pale, reddish, or bluish depending on skin tone
You should see a doctor immediately if you develop symptoms of DVT.
8. Compartment syndrome
Acute compartment syndrome is a serious condition that happens when too much pressure builds up within the muscles. Typically, this occurs after you’ve experienced a major injury to the area, like a fracture or broken bone. Anabolic steroid use or constricting bandages may also cause the syndrome. The pain associated with acute compartment syndrome may be more severe than the injury itself.
Symptoms of compartment syndrome can include:
- severe pain that doesn’t improve after rest or medication
- trouble moving the affected area
- severe tightness or fullness in the muscle
- numbness or paralysis, though these are later symptoms that may indicate permanent injury
If you have symptoms of acute compartment syndrome, visit an emergency room immediately.
People can also develop chronic compartment syndrome. This causes leg pain during exercise. The pain stops when the exercise is stopped. It can also cause:
- difficulty moving the foot
- visible muscle bulging
Physical therapy may help relieve pain for people with chronic compartment syndrome. Surgery may also be an option if this does not provide relief.
Treatment methods for calf pain vary depending on the cause. For calf pain caused by overuse or mild-to-moderate trauma, a doctor may suggest the following:
- P.E.A.C.E. (protect, elevate, avoid anti-inflammatory modalities, compress, educate): Following the P.E.A.C.E. method early after an injury can help prevent further damage and support healing.
- OTC medications: Calf pain can also be soothed with over-the-counter pain relievers such as ibuprofen (Advil), acetaminophen (Tylenol), or naproxen (Aleve).
- Gentle movement: Light stretching may help ease calf pain. Common exercises may include:
- calf raises
You should talk with a doctor if the pain becomes more severe or doesn’t subside within a few days.
For more serious injuries, a doctor might recommend physical therapy.
For calf pain caused by conditions like DVT, compartment syndrome, or DPN, you may need medical intervention. This may include surgery or medication.
Here are a few tips that can help prevent calf pain:
- Mobility work: Keeping your ankle and calf muscle mobile through exercises such as stretching or moving a joint through its full range of motion may help prevent calf pain.
- Rest: Resting from physical activity between workouts can help facilitate muscle repair and growth.
- Warm-up/cool-down: Incorporate a warm-up before working out and a cool-down after to loosen the muscles and prevent future injury.
- Proper shoes: Ensure that the shoes you wear during exercise provide enough SUPPORT, especially if you run or jog for exercise.
- Stay hydrated: Staying hydrated can help prevent calf pain. This is because dehydration directly contributes to muscle cramps.
- Gradually increase exercise: If you’re new to a specific exercise or you’re increasing the intensity of your workout, try to do it gradually. Increasing your activity level too abruptly can cause injury. You can find an exercise plan online or work with a trainer.
Calf pain can feel like a dull, aching, or sharp pain in the back of the lower leg. It may occur with tightness or swelling.
Some symptoms, like fluid retention, and hotness or coldness of the skin, may indicate a more severe condition.
If your symptoms are severe or do not resolve on their own within a few days, it’s best to see a doctor for diagnosis and treatment.