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Causes of Pain in the Top of the Calf

author image Aubrey Bailey
Aubrey Bailey has been writing health-related articles since 2009. Her articles have appeared in ADVANCE for Physical Therapy & Rehab Medicine. She holds a Bachelor of Science in physical therapy and Bachelor of Arts in psychology from the University at Buffalo, as well as a post-professional Doctor of Physical Therapy from Utica College. Dr. Bailey is also a certified hand therapist.
Causes of Pain in the Top of the Calf
Calf muscles

Calf pain can interfere with your daily routine, making it difficult to walk and climb stairs. Two main muscles are located at the top of your calf -- gastrocnemius and soleus. These muscles help to propel your body forward as you walk and to lift your body as you climb stairs. Calf pain can result from injury to these muscles or to the nerves that give sensation to the area. However, calf pain can also be a sign of a blood clot -- a potentially life-threatening condition. See your doctor for an accurate diagnosis if you have calf pain.

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Muscle Strain

Competitive athletes are at high risk of lower leg injuries. Calf muscle strains are common with sports and activities that involve running and high-speed footwork. These injuries can also occur if you trip while walking or step off the curb incorrectly. Calf muscle strains cause pain immediately after injury. You may also have bruising or swelling at the top of your calf. Pain typically increases with activity -- particularly walking and climbing stairs -- and decreases with rest. In rare cases your calf muscle may actually tear. See a doctor if such calf pain prevents you from walking or if your pain does not improve in 72 hours.

Nerve Compression

Nerves power your muscles and give sensation to your skin. These nerves begin at your spine, then branch off into multiple nerves throughout your body. Pressure on these nerves as they exit your spine can cause pain in other areas of your body. For example, compression of S1 -- a nerve located close to the base of your spine -- can cause pain in the top of your calf. This condition often causes tingling or numbness in addition to pain, and back pain can also result. See your doctor for an accurate diagnosis if you experience this type of pain. Nerves located in your calf are also susceptible to damage or compression. The sural nerve runs along the back of your lower leg, giving sensation to the outer portion of your lower leg and foot. Trauma to this nerve can cause pain in the top of your calf, as well as the outer border of your foot. Numbness and tingling may accompany the pain. Nerve damage can also occur with medical conditions such as diabetes, causing pain in the top of your calf.

Deep Vein Thrombosis

Blood clots -- called deep vein thromboses -- sometimes form in deep veins, particularly in the calf. Blood thickens and clots may form when the leg is not moved for prolonged periods, such as when you're traveling by plane or car or after surgical procedures that require bed rest. These clots may become dislodged and travel to your lungs, causing a life-threatening emergency. Calf pain may be sharp or feel like a muscle cramp. Your calf may also swell or be warm to the touch. If you experience these symptoms, seek medical attention immediately.

Vascular Disease

Vascular disease -- damage to blood vessels -- causes plaque buildup on vessel walls, interfering with blood flow. This condition often affects the lower leg. Claudication is a term used to describe pain in the lower leg caused by decreased blood flow to the muscles. Claudication can cause pain in your calf, particularly when you are walking or exercising, as these activities require more blood flow to your calf muscles. Pain from claudication increases with activity and decreases with rest. It may feels like a muscle cramp and may cause you to limp. Vascular disease requires medical management. See your doctor if you experience these symptoms.

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