Sore calves are most common after performing intense activity involving running, jumping and weightlifting. The soreness can be quite uncomfortable, but it is only temporary. Calf strain from an acute injury to the muscle may also cause soreness. Many benign causes of calf pain can be treated at home, but more serious injuries or conditions require medical attention.
Soreness After a Workout
If you wake up in the morning with sore, stiff calves the day after a workout, the cause is most likely delayed-onset muscle soreness (DOMS), a normal response of the muscles to the stresses placed upon them. DOMS is nothing to be concerned about, and it will go away on its own within a few days. In the meantime, you can take a few steps to lessen the pain:
- Do some light cardio exercise. This warms up the muscles and makes them feel less stiff and sore.
- Stretch. After you warm up with some cardio exercise, do some static stretches for your calf muscles. Hold these for about 30 seconds.
- Massage your calves. You can rub the sore muscles gently with your hands, or you can use a foam roller to release some of the muscle tension.
- Apply pain relief balms. The menthol in these balms creates a warming sensation and disrupts the brain/pain connection.
- Apply hot or cold treatment. Heat provides warming relief to help the sore muscles relax, while cold constricts blood vessels to reduce inflammation.
Next time you do the same activities that caused the soreness, DOMS will likely be less intense because your muscles have adapted. You can prevent or lessen DOMS in the future by increasing intensity gradually, warming up before your workout and stretching before and after.
Calf Muscle Strain
A strain is an acute injury in which the muscle fibers become overstretched. A mild strain may feel only slightly sore and stiff, so you may not even realize you've injured your muscle. More severe strains in which more muscle fibers have been torn, or in which the muscle has completely separated, cause more marked side effects including:
- Muscle weakness
- Loss of muscle function
Calf muscle strains are graded in terms of their severity and symptoms:
- Grade I is a mild strain, with slight inflammation and soreness.
- Grade II is a moderate strain with more swelling and pain, perhaps some bruising and muscle weakness.
- Grade III is a severe strain in which the muscle has separated. Often accompanied by a popping sound at the time of injury. The pain and swelling are likely severe and there is loss of muscle function.
Mild strains can be treated at home, but a doctor should examine grade II or grade III strains. To treat a mild strain, follow the RICE protocol:
- Rest. Cease the activity that caused the strain and avoid strenuous activity involving the injured calf muscle until the soreness has subsided.
- Ice. Apply an ice pack to the injured calf muscle for 20 minutes at a time as often as every hour.
- Compression. Wrap an athletic bandage snugly around the calf to provide support and reduce inflammation.
- Elevate. Raise the calf to or above the level of the heart whenever possible to reduce swelling and pain.
Calf Muscle Cramps
Muscle cramps, also referred to as Charley horses, can happen at any time, whether you're out for a run or fast asleep. Suddenly, your muscle becomes very tight, hard and painful. Muscle cramps are short-lived, but they can leave the muscle feeling tender and sore for a few days after.
As soon as the muscle cramp strikes, gently stretch the calf by sitting down and pulling the toes of the foot toward you. You can also try massaging the muscle, icing it or soaking it in a bath with Epsom salts. Continue this treatment as long as the soreness persists.
Calf Muscle Contusion
A contusion is a bruise typically resulting from a direct blow to the calf. This causes blood vessels to break near the surface of the skin, leaking blood into the tissues. The bruise will be tender, blue and purple in color and there may be swelling.
Most bruises can be treated at home with the same RICE protocol used for muscle strains. As the bruise heals, the swelling will lessen and the bruise will change colors. Soreness may stick around for a while.
More severe bruising may require medical attention. If you have severe pain and significant swelling, experience pain for more than three days or notice a lump forming over the bruise (hematoma), it's a good idea to call your doctor.
Other Potential Problems
Other reasons for your calf muscle soreness may not be directly related to the muscle. Some of these can be serious.
Achilles tendinitis or rupture. Your achilles tendon connects your calf muscle to your heel. If it becomes irritated from overuse, you will have pain at the back of your ankle that may also radiate up your calf. If your achilles tears, the pain will be more severe and you may have difficulty putting weight on the injured leg. An overuse injury can often be treated with RICE. A rupture should receive medical attention.
Blood clots. Blood clots are usually a good thing when they form and stop a wound from bleeding. However, they can become dangerous when they form in certain areas, such as the deep veins in the legs. Called thrombosis, this condition can cause many of the same symptoms of a sprain, including pain and swelling, as well as cramping, redness and heat.
If you have these symptoms, you should see a doctor as soon as possible. Blood clots can travel to the lungs and make breathing difficult.
Peripheral artery disease (PAD). With PAD, your circulatory system is compromised, causing narrowed arteries and reduced blood flow to your limbs, commonly your legs. The most notable symptom is pain when walking. You might also experience numbness and weakness, coldness in the lower leg, painful cramping in your calves or other areas of the legs and a change in the color or texture of your skin.
PAD is commonly a sign of more widespread fatty deposits in your arteries, called atherosclerosis. Quitting smoking, exercising regularly and eating healthy can treat peripheral artery disease; however, you should consult your doctor.
Lower leg bone fracture. You can have a minor bone fracture without even knowing it. Fracture of either of the two bones in the lower leg (tibia and fibula) could cause pain and swelling in your calf muscle. A fracture requires medical attention and treatment may include casting or surgery.