While physical activity can improve cardiovascular endurance, maintain strength and flexibility, or simply relieve stress, it can also lead to minor or severe injuries.
Injuries that occur during physical activity can be as minor as a sprain, an abrasion or small laceration. But more intense and debilitating injuries like muscle strains, tears, or bone fractures can create a more intensive recovery and rehabilitation for the individual.
While fractures are more traumatic and not necessarily as common, muscle tears and strains can be wildly more common in endurance training like running, sprinting, etc.
Though muscle tears and strains can occur anywhere on the body, tears within the lower body and lower legs are more frequent while running or endurance training. These muscles include hamstrings, quadriceps, and the smaller muscles; the gastrocnemius, or the calf muscle.
Anatomy and Location
The gastrocnemius consists of two muscles that run along the posterior (back) of the lower leg. These muscles are the lateral (outside) and medial (inside) heads of the gastrocnemius. The calf also consists of the smaller muscles, the soleus, which is a small flat muscle that lies directly beneath the gastrocnemius muscles.
There is also a third, maybe lesser-known muscle that completes the calf complex, the plantaris muscle, which lies between the gastrocnemius and soleus. The gastrocnemius and soleus muscles extend down the back of the lower leg, forming the Achilles tendon behind the heel/ankle joint.
The primary functions of the calf muscles are plantarflexion at the ankle joint and flexion at the knee joint. Plantarflexion involves the extension of the ankle joint so the foot points down and away from the leg.
While flexion at the knee is primarily performed by the hamstrings, the calf muscles work in unison with the hamstrings to help with flexion at the knee joint.
Tear or Strain?
While the terms strain and tear are used interchangeably, they reflect different states of damage to the muscle. When you strain a muscle, the tissue and its fibers are overstretched, usually without tearing. A muscle tear, however, involves a ripping of a muscle or tendon, with complete separation of muscle fibers.
Nevertheless, strains and tears can both cause discomfort for an individual, but the severity of each is very clear cut. It is crucial to make this distinction between the two terms because of the sheer gravity of a muscle tear (and recovery).
Check the Grade
All muscle strains and tears are typically graded on the severity and damage of the muscle. The severity of these strains and tears are determined to be one of three grades:
- Grade I: Fewer than 25% of the muscle fibers have been damaged or affected. Mild pain, loss of flexibility and tightness does occur.
- Grade II: Between 25% to 90% of muscle fibers have been damaged. Moderate pain, moderate loss of flexibility and tightness will occur.
- Grade III: Over 90% of the muscle fibers are damaged. This usually results in a complete tear or rupture of the calf muscle. Severe pain and near loss of flexibility will occur.
How is the Calf Torn?
Tears within the calf usually involve the gastrocnemius and soleus, commonly occurring along the medial head of the gastric. Because the calf muscles cross two joints (ankle and knee), there is a higher risk of strain and tears, most likely during running activities.
Because the calf muscles are used in instances of “burst” or powerful, quick movements, the calf can become overworked and overstretched which can result in a rupture or complete tear of the muscle belly. Sudden instances of “pushing off” quickly to change position can also cause tears with the calf muscles. Tears of the calf muscles are typically seen in baseball, soccer, tennis, and even running.
See and Feel the Symptoms
Depending on the severity of the damage to the muscle, symptoms of a torn calf can vary. While strains often feel like a mild to moderate pulling sensation, complete tears of the calf muscle can feel sharp, often leaving the individual not being able to walk.
In some cases, individuals often experience the dreaded “gunshot” feeling, a sensation described as getting shot in the calf due to the sharp pain they experience with the muscle tear. Some other symptoms of calf tears include:
- Pain, tenderness along the muscle
- Bruising or discoloration
- Decreased flexibility and function
- In extreme tears, a noticeable deformity in the muscle belly can be observed
So, You Tore Your Calf, Now You Need to Take Care of It
Whether you’re suffering from a mild strain to a full-blown tear, treatment afterward is key to your recovery. Sources of treatment include:
- Ice packs or compress: following immediate strain/tear, 10-15 minutes.
- Heat application: usually used 2 to 3 days after initial injury, can alternate with cold therapy.
- Compression wraps- used to provide stability and compression to muscle which reduces swelling and inflammation.
- Elevation- elevating calf above your heart to limit blood flow to the area, reducing painful throbbing.
- Rest- removing yourself from physical activity that can exacerbate symptoms will help reduce the chance of reinjury and give muscle fibers time to heal and regenerate.
- Physical therapy- in more severe cases, calf tears need to be rehabilitated with exercises focusing on regaining strength and flexibility of the muscles.
- Over the counter medications- NSAIDs, paired with physical therapy will help reduce inflammation and swelling of the calf while improving range of motion and recovery.
- In extreme cases of complete muscle tears, surgery may be an option to repair the muscle and its tissues.
Different grades of muscle tears require different timeframes for recovery. Calf tears are no different. The recovery times for calf tears are as follows:
- Grade I: Anywhere from 1 to 2 weeks following proper physical therapy and treatment.
- Grade II: Typically, 3 to 6 weeks for full recovery. Physical therapy, strengthening, and treatment need to be heavily utilized.
- Grade III: Even without surgical intervention, recovery time for a complete tear of the calf muscle can be 3 to 4 months.
Look to Prepare
To prevent the pain and set back of a torn calf, taking actions ahead of physical activity will help you maintain performance and avoid a long recovery period. Some helpful tips to prevent calf tears include:
Doing movements to get the lower extremities moving 5-10 minutes before activity.
Stretching the calf muscle before activity (standing wall stretch, heel raise, seated dorsiflexion, etc.). It is also helpful to stretch after activity.
Listen to your body
If you are feeling pain or discomfort during physical activity, it is important to pull back and even remove yourself entirely to make sure you do not exacerbate your pain and make it worse.
Maintain a proper treatment schedule
Ice, light massage, stretching are all helpful modalities to help reduce the chance for calf tears and maintain performance.
Be Aware To Avoid the Tear
Torn calf muscles are a common injury linked to physical activity. These severe injuries can be devastating and painful. The mere recovery for a torn calf can be just as taxing as the rehabilitation itself. However, like most injuries, there are steps you can take to reduce the likelihood of a calf tear.
By introducing a proper routine of warmups, stretches, and recovery techniques, a tear would be less likely to occur and in turn, be less worrisome for you as an athlete.