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runner suffering with a torn calf muscle
By In-house Team, Circle Health Group

Torn Calf Muscle Q&A

Whether you play football, rugby, tennis, cricket or any other sport, sustaining an injury, such as a torn calf muscle, can really stop you in your tracks. We speak to Senior Physiotherapist Katie Baines from Winterbourne Hospital to help answer some of the most common questions.

What are the signs of a calf muscle tear?

Katie Baines

The signs of a calf injury, also known as a calf tear or a calf muscle tear, can vary significantly due to the severity of the tear, but they usually involve a sudden loss of power with an inability to stretch the calf muscle. This results in limping or poor weight bearing during walking. There’s normally a lot of swelling and the tissues can become hot to touch. There can also be an obvious dip in the muscle belly which is most common at the mid portion.

What does a torn calf muscle feel like?

Katie Baines

A sudden sharp pain at the back of the lower leg is an indication of calf injury. However, if this feeling is accompanied by a very sharp pain (likened to the feeling of being shot), then this is often an indication of severe tearing or rupture. The calf muscle will often be tender to touch at the point of injury and can have symptoms of cramp which worsens when the muscle is stretched. Bruising, or discoloration of the skin, may develop in your calf muscle due to bleeding from damaged blood vessels. This bruising might become more pronounced in the days following the injury.

You may experience a significant loss of strength in the affected calf muscle, making it difficult to push off or bear weight on your injured leg. Walking may also be painful or difficult due to the pain and weakness in your calf muscle.

You may have difficulty flexing or extending your foot, and pointing your toes downward (plantar flexion) can be particularly painful. Sometimes, you may feel lumps or knots in the calf muscle, which can indicate muscle damage. They key symptoms of a torn calf muscle are:

Immediate pain and the sensation of being struck in the back of your calf

  • The area might feel tender
  • Tenderness down to your toes
  • You might feel a popping or cracking sensation
  • Your calf might become swollen day following the injury

What causes a torn calf muscle?

Katie Baines

Calf injuries usually occur as a result of a sudden pushing off movement or from excessive over-stretching of the calf muscles. For example, when performing jumping activities or during quick changes of direction or acceleration.

What are the three grades of muscle strain?

Katie Baines

The three grades of muscle strain are:

Grade 1: The muscle is stretched causing some small micro tears in the muscle fibres. Recovery typically takes approximately two to four weeks if you do all the right things.
Grade 2: There is partial tearing of muscle fibres. Full recovery can take approximately four to eight weeks with good rehabilitation.
Grade 3: This is the most severe calf strain with a complete tearing or rupture of muscle fibres in the lower leg. Full recovery can take three to four months and, in some instances, surgery may be needed.

A torn calf muscle can heal on its own. Healing time will depend on the severity of the injury and the correct rehabilitation process.

Can a torn calf muscle heal itself?

Katie Baines

Yes, a torn calf muscle can heal on its own. Healing time will depend on the severity of the injury and the correct rehabilitation process. However, seeing a physiotherapist can help in managing this injury successfully and avoiding prolonged pain and dysfunction.

What are the complications of a torn calf muscle?

Katie Baines

Complications can include:

  • Swelling
  • Delayed healing
  • Prolonged tightness and pressure sensation in the muscle
  • Sensitivity and soreness over the area of the injury
  • Scar tissue build up
  • Muscle weakness
  • Reduced sports performance

Tell us more about treatment for a calf strain?

Katie Baines

The first thing to do is to get a proper diagnosis and a consultation with a physiotherapist. If conservative measures are recommended, your physiotherapist will guide you through the recovery phases outlined below.

Phase 1: Early injury protection: pain reduction and anti-inflammatory phase

The P.R.I.C.E. principle - protect, rest, ice, compression and elevation

Phase 2: Regain full range of motion

Massage, stretches, ankle mobility

Phase 3: Restore muscle strength

Progressive exercises for the calf and other muscles (core and lower limb)

Phase 4: Restore speed, power, proprioception and agility

Customised graded exercise programme to address requirements of lifestyle/sports

Phase 5: Return to sport

Sports specific rehabilitation drills and phased/guided return to full activity.

If deemed appropriate, a physiotherapist can recommend or refer you for further investigations and a consultant review if necessary. In more severe cases you may be advised to wear a walkabout boot and use crutches to rest the area and allow the muscle to heal. In some instances surgery is needed to repair the muscle tear.

To heal a strained calf muscle, it's essential to follow the R.I.C.E. protocol: Rest, Ice, Compression, and Elevation.

What is the fastest way to heal a strained calf muscle?

To heal a strained calf muscle, it's essential to follow the R.I.C.E. protocol as mentioned above: Rest, Ice, Compression, and Elevation.

Give your injured calf adequate rest to prevent further strain. Apply ice for 15-20 minutes every couple of hours during the first 48 hours to reduce swelling.

Use a compression bandage for support, being careful not to wrap it too tightly, and elevate your leg to minimise swelling.

Over-the-counter pain relievers can help with pain and inflammation, but speak with your consultant for guidance.

Gentle calf stretches and mobility exercises can be introduced gradually after a few days. If your symptoms persist, contact a physiotherapist for a tailored recovery plan. Finally, ensure a gradual return to activity and supportive footwear to prevent yourself from being injured further.

Get help for your calf strain

If you'd like physiotherapy for your calf strain, you can phone us to book an appointment with one of our brilliant physiotherapists today.

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How do I book an appointment?

If you're concerned about symptoms you're experiencing or require further information on this subject, talk to a GP or see an expert consultant at your local Circle Hospital.