Calf problems can cause a range of symptoms including:
In many cases, new or flare-up of long-standing calf problems should begin to settle within 6 weeks without the need to see a healthcare professional.
Urgent advice: Phone 111 as soon as possible if:
- there's been a new, significant trauma, for example a fall from height or direct blow to the calf, ankle or leg
- your calf or lower leg is misshapen
- you've difficulty putting weight on your leg
Non-urgent advice: Contact your GP, or phone 111 if your GP practice is closed, if:
- you have had trauma affecting your calf or ankle more than 7 days ago
- your calf is hot, swollen and tender
- you have pain that's worsening despite following self-care advice
What causes calf muscle problems?
Calf problems are usually caused by injuries. These can occur due to a:
- sporting activity
- direct hit to the area
There are other less common causes of calf problems like back problems or circulatory issues.
Can calf pain cause problems anywhere else?
You may feel some pain in the muscles around your knee, ankle or foot. This should improve as your calf problem gets better.
If you experience these for longer than 6 weeks, you may need to speak to a healthcare professional.
Occasionally, problems felt in your calf can be due to a back problem - even though you don't feel pain in your back. People with this sort of problem often describe the pain as pins and needles, sharp, hot or burning pain. This is usually in the back of the calf.
If you have any of these symptoms it would be helpful to read about back problems.
There are a number of things you can do to help your calf problem.
Keeping your calf moving is an essential part of your treatment and recovery.
How to get moving
Within the first 24 to 48 hours of the onset of a calf problem you should try to:
- reduce your activities but move as much as your symptoms allow
- put your calf in an elevated position, when resting
- move your ankle and knee gently for 10 to 20 seconds every hour when you're awake
- avoid long periods on your feet
When using stairs it may help to:
- lead with your good leg when going upstairs to reduce the strain on your calf
- lead with your problem leg when going downstairs to reduce the strain on your calf
- use a handrail (if available) when going up and downstairs
After 48 hours:
- try to use your leg more - exercise really helps your calf and can relieve pain
do whatever you normally would and stay at, or return to work - this is important and is the best way to get better
It's beneficial to do specific exercises that can help in your recovery. They may be challenging at the beginning so just do what you can and try to build it up over time.
Read about exercises to help with calf problems
Benefits of keeping active
Keeping active's the single best thing you can do for your general health.
Being physically active can:
- maintain your current levels of fitness – even if you have to modify what you normally do, any activity is better than none
- keep your other muscles and joints strong and flexible
- prevent a recurrence of the problem
- help you aim for a healthy body weight
Avoid sports or heavy lifting until you have less discomfort and good movement. Remember to warm up fully before you start sporting activities.
The following can help to reduce the pain:
- pain medication - this can help you move more comfortably, which can help your recovery
- heat or ice packs
More about taking painkillers.
Treating with ice or heat
Heat or ice can be beneficial in the management of musculoskeletal pain.
Ice is most beneficial if your calf problem is related to an injury. You can try heat to help your pain levels if there's no swelling and your symptoms are not related to a recent injury.
Never place ice or heat directly on your skin. Use a barrier, like a towel, to protect your skin from a burn.
How long you use ice as a treatment can vary. However, you should generally apply heat or ice for up to 15 minutes. You should also leave a few hours between treatments.
You should stop treating the area with ice or heat and seek advice from a medical professional if you notice an increase in redness, discolouration or blistering of the skin.
If you have any issues with circulation or sensation, you shouldn't use ice or heat as a treatment for calf pain.
It's recommended you stay at or return to work as quickly as possible during your recovery. You don't need to be pain and symptom-free to return to work.
Help and support
Following this advice, you should see gradual improvements over time.
You should see the biggest change in your symptoms within the first couple of weeks. Most problems should have improved within 6 weeks.
If your calf problem hasn’t improved within 6 weeks of following this advice, it’s a good idea to talk to a healthcare professional about your symptoms.
02 February 2023
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