If you’ve ever experienced a sudden onset of pain in your calves, you know the debilitating effect it can have.
Sudden calf pain is often the result of a mild pull, strain, or cramp. But there are cases where it can indicate a deeper health concern that might need immediate medical treatment.
This article covers the main causes of unexpected calf pain and discusses the best steps to take if they apply to you.
If you’re experiencing intense calf pain, here are some signs you should visit the emergency room (ER) as soon as possible:
- You have just injured your leg and notice a deep cut or exposed bone, which could lead to infection.
- There’s skin discoloration, either pale or bluish skin, on your leg, feet, or toes.
- You suddenly have problems moving or walking on both legs.
- You experience severe or sudden calf pain.
- There’s swelling in your calf or anywhere in your lower leg with no apparent cause.
- You have pain while or immediately after walking.
- You have swelling in both legs.
- You have painful varicose veins.
- The pain gets worse or symptoms don’t improve after a few days of home treatment.
- The pain is minor or appears to be a strain or an isolated cramp.
- The discomfort goes away after a gentle massage or some light stretching.
The following are a few of the main causes of acute calf pain.
Claudication is a sign your legs aren’t getting enough blood flow. The narrowing of blood arteries deprives your calf muscles of oxygen, which can cause pain when you exercise or walk.
This commonly occurs in people who smoke or have diabetes. Symptoms should go away after a few minutes of rest while standing evenly on your feet.
When you stand or walk, the pain could increase, but it should subside if you sit or lean forward.
Lower leg fracture
If your tibia or fibula — the bones that run along your shin and calf area — break or crack, your calf may be tender, swollen, or bruised, and walking may be painful. See a doctor to help set the bones or put on a cast to help your bones
Signs include noticeable redness, swelling, and warmth in your calf.
You may also have a fever and fatigue. Labs and imaging tests are the best way to confirm you have an infection, and a doctor may prescribe you antibiotics to remove parts of the infected bone.
A muscle cramp
After you massage the area, do some light stretching, and apply some heat. The cramp should subside. If you think you’re dehydrated, have a drink with some salt or electrolytes.
Deep vein thrombosis (DVT)
In this rare case, a blood clot forms in your lower leg, which could lead to a pulmonary embolism. Your calf may ache and feel warm.
The skin may also look red. Obesity puts you at risk of DVT along with pregnancy, smoking, and sitting for long periods of time.
If you stretch your muscle too far or place too much pressure on it you can strain your calf. You may notice swelling, redness, or a bruise. It may hurt to rise onto your toes. Rest, and apply ice to the area. It may take several weeks to heal.
Your Achilles tendon can get overused and cause an ache in the back of your ankle running up your calf. This should
A Baker’s cyst
If the sciatic nerve in your lower spine is pinched or inflamed you’ll
Chronic compartment syndrome
When you exercise excessively,
A break from movement may help combat this condition. In some rare cases, you might need surgery if the chronic stress is too severe.
If you stand up or walk for too many hours of the day, the pressure in your legs over time can cause
Compression stockings may help as can exercise. Propping your leg up while you sit may help temporarily alleviate symptoms.
Your doctor may also decide to treat the varicose veins with surgery if needed.
Diabetic peripheral neuropathy
Medical treatment is based on addressing the pain with medication, and improving overall body strength to help address the nerve damage.
The following are a few signs that you’re dealing with a potentially serious situation:
- The pain progressively gets worse.
- Your symptoms don’t improve after a few days of home treatment.
- If you hear a snapping sound prior to the pain.
- The pain is accompanied by warmth, redness, fevers, or shortness of breath.
If you suspect the pain is caused by DVT, a bone infection, or a bad fracture, go to the ER immediately.
If you suspect it’s caused by one of the other issues listed above, try treating it at home for a few days. If that fails, then head to the doctor for a better treatment option.
If you’re experiencing sudden calf pain, check that you’re not at risk of any of the more serious issues that could be causing it. Watch for symptoms like an exposed broken bone, shortness of breath, a sudden loss of the ability to walk on both legs, or a snapping sound prior to the pain.
If any of these situations apply to you, go to the ER immediately.
You may still want to talk with a doctor right away if:
- you’re at risk of diabetes
- you smoke
- you’re overweight
If the pain seems manageable and is more likely a strain or a cramp, try treating the injury at home. You can try raising your leg and covering the painful area with a wrapped-up ice pack to reduce swelling for 15–20 minutes.
Repeat this over the next few days a few times every day. If the pain persists, go to the doctor for help.