Your calf is the muscular area located on the back of the lower part of your leg. It is made of two main muscles. The most prominent is the gastrocnemius muscle, which is located just under the skin. The soleus muscle lies immediately underneath the gastrocnemius. These two muscles join together before attaching to the Achilles tendon at the ankle. The gastrocnemius begins at the thigh bone, just above the knee. The soleus muscle begins at the lower leg bones, just below the knee.
Burning pain in your calf can have a number of causes. Sciatica, peripheral polyneuropathy, muscle strain and peripheral arterial disease are among the most common.
Burning pain is often caused by pressure on a nerve. Numbness, pins and needles sensations and muscle weakness may occur with nerve pain. Sometimes a shooting pain is felt as well.
When the sciatic nerve is compressed, pain can occur anywhere along the path of the nerve, from the lower back, to the thigh, the calf, and even the foot. The pain, called sciatica, is usually caused by compression of the nerve near its origin in the spinal cord -- known as a radiculopathy. This compression is often the result of degenerative changes in the spine that occur with age or a herniated disc. Less commonly, a spinal tumor is responsible.
Peripheral polyneuropathy -- a type of peripheral neuropathy -- is a disorder characterized by damage to multiple nerves, especially in the arms and legs. It typically begins in the toes and fingers and gradually moves upward to involve the feet, calves and hands. Pain, numbness, pins and needles and weakness occur in these areas.
The calf pain of peripheral polyneuropathy is often a burning or cramping sensation. Both sides of the body are affected, although symptoms are frequently more severe on one side. Diabetes is one of the most common causes of peripheral polyneuropathy. Kidney disease, an underactive thyroid, vitamin B6 or B12 deficiency, a number of infections and various medications are other possible causes.
Muscle strains occur when muscle fibers are torn. Calf muscle strains may occur suddenly -- such as by a specific movement -- or they may develop more gradually -- such as from overuse. Running is a common cause of overuse muscle strain.
Pain is the main symptom of calf muscle strain. It can have a burning quality, especially when the strain is more severe. The pain improves with rest and worsens with movement. Other symptoms that may accompany the pain include calf tightness, weakness, swelling or bruising, depending on the severity of the strain. Stretching before a workout may help prevent calf muscle strain.
Peripheral Arterial Disease
Peripheral arterial disease (PAD) occurs when cholesterol-containing plaques develop within the arteries of the arms or legs. These plaques cause blockages that reduce the flow of blood to the tissues fed by the arteries. As a result, the tissues are deprived of an adequate supply of oxygen and nutrients.
PAD is much more common in the legs than in the arms. Reduced blood flow to the calf causes pain that often has a burning or cramping quality. The pain typically occurs with walking and disappears with rest. When blood flow is very low, the pain can persist at rest. Hair loss, thin skin and open sores may also develop in the area.
Many other conditions can cause calf pain, although the pain is usually not felt as a burning sensation. Strain or rupture of the Achilles tendon can cause pain, which is usually located in the lower part of the calf. Calf pain can also be caused by inflammation of superficial veins of the lower leg -- called phlebitis -- or a blood clot in the deep veins of the lower leg -- called deep vein thrombosis or deep venous thrombosis (DVT).
Sometimes a collection of fluid called a Baker's cyst develops behind the knee. If it ruptures, calf pain occurs as fluid travels down into the area. Bone tumors or fractures are other possible causes of calf pain.
If you have calf pain, see your doctor to find out the cause and the most appropriate treatment. Seek immediate medical care if you have shortness of breath or chest pain, as these symptoms may indicate that a blood clot in your calf veins has broken free and traveled to your lungs. If you had a significant injury to your leg, obtain immediate medical attention to determine whether you have a fracture.
Reviewed and revised by Mary D. Daley, MD.
- Sports Injury Clinic: Calf Strain
- National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke: Peripheral Neuropathy Fact Sheet
- Medline Plus: Sciatica
- Merck Manual Professional Version: Sciatica
- American Family Physician: Peripheral Neuropathy -- Differential Diagnosis and Management
- Merck Manual Professional Version: Polyneuropathy
- University of Wisconsin: Radiculopathies
- WebMD: Picture of the Calf Muscle
- Merck Manual Professional Version: Peripheral Arterial Disease
- Merck Manual Professional Version: Deep Venous Thrombosis (DVT)