Your legs carry you on many journeys and support the entire weight of your body. From walking to running to jumping or pushing off while swimming, your leg muscles are the top means of motion for most people. Pain in the calf or the leg can at best be an annoyance, and in the worst scenario can mean a serious medical condition.
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Calf muscles run down the back of the leg from the knee to the ankle. The gastrocnemius is the big muscle at the back of the lower leg and the soleus is the smaller muscle lower down on the leg under the gastrocnemius. These muscles help point the foot away from the body. The leg extends from the hip to the heels and consists of connective tissues, bones, blood vessels and muscles.
Calf pain can be caused by a strain or tear in the muscles due to injury or overuse. According to the University of Maryland Medical Center, any muscle in the calf or leg can become dehydrated or be affected by low levels of potassium, sodium, calcium or magnesium in the bloodstream and become painful. Injuries to the bone like cracks or fractures or inflamed tendons can cause pain. Overall muscle fatigue from overuse or holding a muscle in the same position for an extended period of time is also a cause of pain. Other causes of calf and leg pain include infections of the bones, inflammation of the joints, nerve damage and blood clots.
Calf strain symptoms often present as a twinge in the back part of the lower leg with tightness and an aching feeling for about two to five days after. If the strain is more severe, the calf may swell and the tightness and aching will be present for more than a week. Leg pain can be felt as a tightness in any muscle area, a stabbing sensation, a dull ache or a tingling. The pain may be constant or intermittent. The leg may feel unstable to stand on and walking may feel difficult. Leg pain can also start in the lower back and radiate down the leg.
For calf pain and other minor muscle strains and sprains, the RICE--or rest, ice, compression, elevation--method is adequate treatment. Cold compresses can be applied to a swollen area to help prevent internal bleeding. An anti-inflammatory medication like ibuprofen can help lessen the pain. Make an appointment to see a doctor if there is pain after walking or swelling in both legs. If there was a popping or grinding sound with an injury, the leg is deformed or an inability to stand, go to the emergency room.
Some leg and calf pain can indicate a serious condition called peripheral artery disease, or PAD. These symptoms are severe muscle cramping in the hips, thighs or calves. PAD can be caused by a buildup of plaque in the blood vessels which lessens circulation to the legs. Sciatic nerve pain, which radiates down the leg, is also a consideration with calf and leg pain.