By Erin Higgins, DPT
Jumpstart Physical Therapy
It seems that nearly everyone has complained of a pulled/strained/torn muscle at some point. A common place to pull a muscle is the calf, which is clinically known as the gastrocnemius muscle. This article will discuss the proper management of a strain to ensure proper healing so that you can quickly and safely get back to your prior levels of function and workout routine.
As with all strained muscles, a calf strain occurs due to overload of the muscle. This is typically from a quick burst of movement such as a jump or run/sprint. There is typically an instant in time in which you feel a pull/pain/pop in your calf. This is different than muscle soreness, which typically starts hurting a day or two after intense exercise. With a strain, muscle fibers are stretched and pulled, causing pain. With a bad strain, you may also have significant swelling and bruising in the area.
Immediately after the injury, there may be some pain at rest that will worsen with any active contraction or stretching of your calf. Therefore, immediate management of a muscle includes RICE - rest, ice, compression, and elevation. Any activities that cause pain (typically activities such as running, jumping, or maybe even just fast walking) should be avoided to allow proper healing. Ice and elevation will help with swelling management. Compression with a calf sleeve or ace bandage may also help with swelling and typically helps to decrease pain as well.
Additionally, stretching should be AVOIDED in initial stages after an injury. If you think about it, a torn muscle is a stretched muscle - so if you try to stretch it, you are literally stretching an already over-stretched muscle - and you could potentially make the strain even worse. This is a common misconception after any strained muscle. Stretching should be implemented only when you are completely pain free. When you initially start stretching, you may have some mild tightness and discomfort in the area, but there should be NO PAIN to ensure that you are not making the strain worse.
When you are pain free with daily activities, make sure to slowly re-integrate back into your old routine to make sure that you do not re-aggravate the strain. This will likely include starting to exercise again for decreased time and intensity, or modifying your activities. Generally, with proper early management of a strain, you can quickly return to your prior functional levels and exercise routine. If you suspect a severe strain, you should seek medical attention in order to ensure proper management and a more specific treatment plan.