Torn Calf Muscle: Causes, Symptoms & Treatment
A torn calf muscle is one of Australia's most common sports injuries.
A torn calf or a calf strain is all too common among athletes and active people. Whether it's a sudden change of direction during a soccer match or consistent overtraining and overloading your muscles over time, a torn calf muscle can be caused by many different factors. Regardless of the cause, we understand this type of injury can be demoralising and incredibly frustrating when it happens to you.
As painful as an injury is, we have some good news; a calf muscle tear is treatable and preventable. This article will help you understand the causes and risk factors associated with calf tears and provide you with practical tips to treat this injury and prevent it from happening in the future.
What is a Torn Calf Muscle?
A torn calf muscle occurs when the gastrocnemius (calf muscle) fibres are overloaded or overstretched, causing a painful tear in your calf tissue. Depending on what caused the injury and the amount of pressure, the calf muscle tear can range from a slight pull to a complete muscle rupture.
To help athletes understand their injury and to help physiotherapists diagnose the severity of the injury, three 'grades' of a calf tear were created:
Considered a mild tear, with only minor damage to the calf muscle. You can still walk — with minor pain.
A moderate partial muscle tear, which causes swelling, discomfort, and pain when walking.
A severe tear, when the muscle is completely torn or ruptured. Walking will be intensely painful.
What is the difference between a calf strain and calf muscle tear?
Fundamentally, a calf strain and a calf tear are the same thing. These terms are used interchangeably to describe the same injury — however, like it sounds, a calf tear is usually more extreme than a calf strain.
When you suffer a calf tear, it is typically a grade 2 or grade 3 level injury. You’ll experience significant pain and will be unable to walk without discomfort. Meanwhile, a calf strain is typically a grade 1 level injury. Yes, you may feel some pain, but you should still be able to walk without too much discomfort.
What are the Most Common Causes of a Torn Calf Muscle?
Of course, there is no precise formula on what causes a torn calf muscle, but two types of incidents predominantly cause it:
Overtraining, overuse, and overloading the muscle
Sudden, high-intensity movements when the body is not ready
It is very clear that not preparing your body is the major cause of calf tears. That might mean you had not warmed up enough before your session, cooled down properly after, or incorporated the necessary strength training.
Regular intense exercise like running or playing sports will put your calf muscles under continuous stress. Over time, this can cause the muscle fibres to weaken and eventually tear, particularly if you have not allowed your body to rest or recover.
Plus, sudden explosive movement, like accelerating in a rugby game, changing direction on the tennis court, or picking up the pace on your Sunday long run, can cause the muscle to tear immediately. This typically occurs when you force the calf muscle to exceed the capacity it has been trained to withstand, which is why adequate warm-ups and strength training are so important.
What Does a Torn Calf Muscle Feel Like?
The symptoms of a torn calf muscle are undeniable; with a moderate or severe tear, there is no avoiding the pain. In addition to sudden and sharp pain in your lower leg, you will also lack mobility and notice swelling around the injured area. The intensity of your symptoms will depend on the severity of your tear, but there’s no denying that no matter what grade of tear you suffer from, it will hurt, so it’s best to stay off that leg until it’s healed.
Torn Calf Muscle Treatment
When you tear your calf muscle, act quickly to recover, and avoid further injury. Here’s what you can do:
1. Immediate Relief Measures
Immediately after the injury, follow the RICE protocol: Rest, Ice, Compression, and Elevation. This involves:
Rest your injury to prevent further damage and allow your body to heal.
Ice your calf to reduce the inflammation and pain.
Compression (with an elasticated bandage) will help limit swelling.
Elevation of your injured leg above your heart's level will also reduce swelling and pain.
2. Physiotherapy for a torn calf muscle
Once you have managed the initial shock and pain associated with the injury, seek professional help for physiotherapy. A qualified physio or sport physiotherapist can help you understand your injury and determine the root cause. A physio doesn’t just consider the incident but also where any imbalances or weaknesses in your body might be and how this contributed to the injury.
After this, your physio will develop a strength and recovery program tailored to your injury and body. This program will help heal the injured calf muscle, building your strength and functionality back where it once was (and beyond). Your program will involve a combination of stretches and exercises to help regain strength, flexibility, and balance.
Recovering from a calf tear with deep tissue massage
Remedial massage and deep tissue massage are incredible recovery tools when used correctly. Professional massage breaks up scar tissue in your legs, stimulates blood circulation, and reduces inflammation. Depending on the severity of your injury, deep tissue massage might be exactly what you need to speed up the recovery process.
How long does recovery from a calf tear take?
The recovery time from a calf muscle tear depends on the severity of your injury and the effort you put into your recovery. You can speed up recovery through professional treatment and by resting your leg, however, the following guideline is accurate for those who follow the appropriate RICE protocols and seek physiotherapy and rehabilitation work:
Mild Tear (Grade 1): 2-3 Weeks
Moderate Tear (Grade 2): 4-8 Weeks
Severe Tear (Grade 3): 2-6 Months
How Can I Prevent a Torn Calf Muscle in the Future?
If you have suffered a calf tear before, you will do anything to prevent it from happening again. The good news is this is entirely possible with mindful, consistent work and forming good habits. Below are four simple ways to prevent tearing your calf in the future:
1. Strength training:
Regularly going to the gym and following a proper strength program significantly reduces your chance of injury. You want to focus on strengthening your calves and surrounding leg muscles.
2. Warm-up and cool-down:
So often, the reason for a calf tear is a lack of warming up or cooling down. Take the time to do both, and you significantly increase your chance of preventing injury.
3. Hydrate and Fuel:
Dehydration is dangerous. Equally, if you do not give your body the necessary fuel, you open yourself up to injury. You must eat a nutritious carb-heavy meal before you exercise, drink lots of water throughout the day, and replenish with good food and electrolytes once you are done.
4. Listen to your body:
Be sensible and learn to understand your body. If you feel pain or even a twinge in your calf, don't be afraid to stop and rest. It’s better to be safe than sorry!
While tearing your calf muscle can be demoralising and extremely painful, it is vital to remember that it is preventable and treatable. By following the advice above, sticking to a strength program, and ensuring to warm up and cool down properly, you will set yourself up to avoid any issues.
At Infinite Health, we are experts in health, recovery, and wellbeing. Our professional physiotherapists provide tailored strength, stretching, recovery, and rehabilitation programs to help you restore your full functionality and movement. We do not want you to go through injury or recovery alone. Reach out to our team, and we will have you fighting fit in no time.