Calves are the muscles at the backs of the lower legs and consist of two separate muscles called the soleus and gastrocnemius. The calf muscles are used extensively in everyday life and in most sports. Tight calves are a common occurrence and may be a sign of a more serious health risk.
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Stiff calves may be caused by a number of factors. Overall poor conditioning and flexibility or improper running form is one common reason a person’s calves may stiffen up. Wearing shoes that put added stress on the calf muscles is another cause. A condition known as lateral compartment syndrome, where the muscle is larger than the sheath that surrounds it, may result in stiff calves, as will a situation where the muscles have developed too quickly. Sports injuries such as being kicked or hit in the calf also can cause swelling, which leads to stiffness.
Lack of mobility in the affected muscle, swelling and some degree of pain typically accompany stiff calves. The RICE concept of rest, ice, compression and elevation is a good initial step to soothe a tight calf muscle. If the stiffness is accompanied by pain, and walking is difficult, visit your doctor for a more thorough diagnosis. He may direct you to a physiotherapist for massage or heat treatments, depending on the severity of the injury.
Keeping calves loose and flexible is the most effective way to prevent stiffness, and performing regular stretches is the way to keep them loose. To target both muscles in the calf, it is wise to do two variations of the same stretch. Stand facing a wall with one foot in front of the other. Lean forward and place your palms on the wall. Keep the heel of your back foot on the ground and the leg straight to stretch the gastrocnemius muscle in your back leg. To stretch the soleus muscle, bend the back leg to match the front one. Perform the stretch on both sides.
In some cases, calf tightness may be the result of a deep vein thrombosis, or DVT, which is a blood clot deep in the calf tissue. Occasionally, DVT can lead to a pulmonary embolism, which occurs when the clot breaks free and travels through the bloodstream. If you are generally inactive, over 40, pregnant, a smoker or have cancer, and you can’t pinpoint a cause of your calf tightness, don’t hesitate to see your doctor for a diagnosis.