How Soon to Exercise After Calf Muscle Tear?

Young man with calf Injury
A man has an injured calf muscle. (Image: Martinan/iStock/Getty Images)

The calf muscles play an important role in sports and fitness, enabling you to propel yourself forward and upward. A tear in the calf muscle, also called a strain or rupture, can be painful and debilitating. Depending on the severity, complete recovery from a calf muscle tear can take anywhere from a few days to several months.

Calf Muscle Anatomy and Function

Although it's referred to as a single muscle, your calf is really two muscles located in the backs of your lower legs. The gastrocnemius is the large muscle easily seen just below the knee. It attaches to the femur above the knee joint and inserts via the Achilles tendon to the calcaneus, or heel bone. The soleus lies below and beneath the gastrocnemius, attaching below the knee and joining the gastrocnemius at the Achilles tendon and calcaneus. The primary function of both muscles is to point the foot away from the body, an action called plantar flexion. Your calf muscles work together to produce huge amounts of force during rebounding activities, sending you airborne.

Cause and Symptoms of Injury

Calf injuries are common in sports or activities that require repetitive jumping, lunging or pushing off with the foot. A muscle tear can occur suddenly or develop gradually as an overuse injury from repetitive motions, such as running or rebounding. A strain can range from a small partial tear with minimal pain and minimal loss of function to a complete rupture requiring surgical reconstruction. Symptoms are characterized by swelling or bruising at the site of the injury, and tenderness to the touch. If the injury is to the soleus, you might notice pain when pointing your toes in a bent-knee position. The severity of your injury will determine how soon you can resume exercise.

Grades of Injury

According to website Sports Injury Clinic, calf injuries are graded from one to three. A grade-one strain is a minor tear with twinges of pain and little loss of function. An athlete with a grade-one strain might opt to ignore the pain and return to play immediately. Grade-two strains are marked by sharp pain, swelling or bruising and pain while walking. Grade-three strains are severe, with pain, swelling, bruising and total loss of function. A complete rupture means the tendon has detached from the bone, disabling both muscles, which will appear bunched up under the skin and require surgery.

Treatment and Recovery

PhysioAdvisor.com notes that a treatment of rest, ice, compression and elevation, or RICE, for the first 72 hours after injury can shorten recovery time. You might be able to resume exercise within a few days with a grade-one tear, but begin at a lower intensity and work your way up to pre-injury levels. Grade-two strains might require a few days of RICE, followed by gradual light stretching and low-resistance contraction. A grade-two injury might be healed enough to resume light activity after a week or two. A grade-three rupture might require medical intervention and weeks or even months of physical therapy, making a return to exercise a long-term proposition. After your injury and before returning to exercise, consult a health care professional for treatment and guidance.

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