Calf Muscle Tears
What is a calf muscle tear?
Calf muscle tears are unfortunately quite common injuries, particularly in men in their 40s and 50s. The most commonly injured muscle is the medial head of the gastrocnemius (medial gastroc tear) and second, a rupture of the plantaris muscle. Occasionally lateral gastroc muscle tears can occur. These muscles are the top part of the Achilles complex; they all essentially blend together with other muscles (soleus) to become your Achilles tendon down at your ankle. They function to help you stand on your toes and bend your foot toward the ground.
Usually these tears happen during a sudden muscular contraction, e.g., playing some kind of sport (tennis, basketball, soccer, etc), running for a bus, or running and jumping. Often, it feels like the person was hit in the back of the calf with a bat, or as if a ball had directly impacted a calf. Most people with calf muscle tears feel and/or hear a pop, and then pain is noted pretty soon thereafter. Usually, it is quite difficult to walk, and swelling happens very quickly. Often the calf may appear deformed, e.g., the muscle of the calf, usually the gastrocnemius, will appear to sag, after this injury.
Why do people get calf muscle tears?
Usually, the main reason is muscle tightness. Unfortunately, a natural part of aging is a loss of flexibility. People who continue to stay active and have never had a problem before may not think to stretch prior to activity as much as they should. Obviously prevention is the best answer. Stretching before any exercise and maintaining good overall muscle strength is important to prevent gastroc tears and other calf injuries. Our ankle rehabilitation kit is perfect for this.
Diagnosing gastroc tears
Most of the time, these are diagnosed based on the history and physical examination of the patient. Occasionally, an MRI is ordered to further define the injury.
Treatment of gastroc and plantaris muscle ruptures
Fortunately, these tears will heal on their own, without the need for surgery. But there are several aspects to treating these injuries that help to speed along the healing and recovery, as well as making you more comfortable:
The biggest discomfort after calf muscle tears occurs from swelling and bleeding that happens afterwards. There are three important ways to control swelling:
Elevation — above the level of your heart. You can also lie on your stomach and allow the front of your leg to rest on pillows. Think of the typical image of kids watching TV laying on their stomachs.
Compression. This is extremely important to decrease the bleeding in the calf. You may start off with a simple ace wrap purchased from a pharmacy. However, the problem with ace wraps is that they lose their elasticity pretty easily. For that reason, we recommend our RecoverGear Calf Compression device. It slips on easily, maintains its elasticity, and does not show dirt/smudges easily.
Ice. The cooling effect controls pain as well as swelling. Often, starting with a bag of frozen peas is good. However, keeping this attached, with an ace wrap in place, is often very difficult. Again, this is where our Calf Compression device can help. It has a slot in the bag for an included reusable ice pack that slips right in - much more convenient and comfortable that a bag of frozen peas.
Pain can be controlled by many methods. Decreasing swelling as noted above is important. Tylenol or non-steroidal anti-inflammatories (e.g., ibuprofen or naproxen) also help. Occasionally your physician may prescribe narcotics.
Helping the torn calf muscle to heal
Crutches are often necessary for the first week or two to take stress off the calf muscle. Your physician may also prescribe a walking boot. A really important step in healing the muscle is to help "put it back into place"; when the muscle tears, particularly the medial gastroc, it sags down lower in the calf. Pushing this back up to its normal attachment site at the back of the knee helps it to heal in the right spot. Again, this is where our Calf Compression device comes in handy.
You may want to consider taking something, such as a daily aspirin, to prevent against blood clots for a couple weeks. Discuss this with your physician.
Thankfully, recovery after medial gastroc and plantaris muscle tears is relatively quick, about 4-6 weeks. Once pain and swelling has subsided (about 2-4 weeks after injury), and the patient is able to walk with only a mild limp, we recommend rehabilitation. Our Ankle Rehabilitation Kit will help to regain flexibility and improve strength after these injuries. It is very important to keep up this rehabilitation upon return to sports to prevent recurring calf injuries. Specifically, we tell our patients that it is very important to rehabilitate the OTHER calf, as that one is at high risk for a similar injury. Most patients can expect full or near-full return to function after these calf muscle injuries, if they rehab their leg appropriately.