Calf tightness can occur in a number of ways. It refers to stiffness and a lack of flexibility in the two muscles which make up the calf - the soleus and the gastrocnemius. Because these muscles are essential to movement, calf tightness can affect other areas of the body when moving, walking or exercising. Subsequently, the function of the ankle, foot and knee may be affected by calf tightness, potentially causing pain or injury.
One of the most common causes of calf tightness is overuse of these muscles. This can occur when running or playing high-intensity sports. It is understood that endurance sports are especially taxing on the calf muscles, meaning long-distance runners could be at a higher risk of developing calf tightness.
Other causes of calf tightness include deep vein thrombosis, peripheral vascular disease, muscle tears, bad circulation, sides effects from certain medicines, inhibited movement in the ankle (equinus), dehydration, and an imbalanced diet.
Calf tightness symptoms can vary according to the cause of the condition. In the case of tight or cramped calf muscles which stem from overuse, symptoms can vary from mild discomfort to intense pain. The tightness can occur immediately following exercise, or begin to develop several hours later.
Other symptoms of calf tightness may include being unable to stand on your tiptoes; a sudden feeling of pain at the back of the calf; pain after the application of pressure to the muscles; and swelling or bruising.
As a first step to addressing calf tightness, there are a series of stretches which your doctor or physiotherapist can recommend. These can be performed at home or in a gym. It is important to ease into stretches gently to avoid injuring the muscles. There are certain physical exercises which can help to address muscle imbalances that have been caused by calf tightness.
The rest, ice, compression and elevation (RICE) routine has been found to be effective in treating the symptoms of calf tightness in the hours after they arise, as well as helping to reduce muscle damage. Massage therapy is an alternative therapy which can soothe muscle pain and tension with the manipulation of the muscles and soft tissues by a massage therapist.
There are several over the counter medications which can be prescribed for calf tightness, including nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAID) such as ibuprofen and naproxen.
You can help to prevent calf tightness by taking measures such as warming up adequately before physical exercise; wearing compression sleeves during exercise, which can enhance your blood flow; ensuring shoes provide adequate support; staying hydrated by drinking plenty of water; receiving massage between regular physical activity, and building muscle strength and fitness.
When calf tightness does arise, it is important that the condition is addressed as quickly as possible, in order to prevent problems such as stress fractures, calf pulls, compartment syndrome and shin splints.