How To Recognize Causes of Calf Pain

Leg and calf pain

The calf, located between the ankle and knee, is the fleshy part at the back made up of one soleus muscle and two gastrocnemeius muscles. Normally, calf pain is self-induced because it is generally caused by lack of or improper stretching before engaging in any form of strenuous activity. Pain in this area may be due to other reasons as well like over exertion, injury, cold weather, fatigue, and circulatory problems.

Here are some of the more common causes of calf pain:

1. Calf strain involves a calf injury wherein there is a tear in the muscle fibers. Sudden stress on the calf muscles causing these muscles to be forcibly stretched beyond their limit may cause this type of injury. Symptoms include tightness or pain at the back of the lower leg to swelling of the calf, bruising, and experiencing a popping sensation in the muscles.

2. Calf cramps can be caused by a cold environment, overexertion, and reduced blood flow due to prolonged inactivity and/or low levels of calcium, sodium, magnesium, and potassium, followed by excessive dehydration. This involuntary muscle contraction sometimes lasts for a few minutes. Symptoms of nocturnal calf cramps are sudden intense pain and a sore calf even after the cramp ends.

3. Tendonitis, a condition associated with the Achilles tendon, can cause calf pain. The tendon is a set of tissues that start from the lower leg and connects the heel bone to the calf muscle. When overused, tenderness, soreness, or other forms of pain may occur along the path of the tendon, affecting the calf as well.

4. Circulatory Problems

  • Deep Vein Thrombosis or DVT, a condition wherein a blood clot forms deep in the vein, is due to poor circulation or damage in the vein. Some symptoms of DVT are pain and swelling of the calf together with overall leg aches. Some individuals who travel and sit in the plane for long periods of time develop blood clots causing pain in the calves.
  • Chronic Venous Insufficiency (CVI), the final stage of DVT occurs when free flow of blood is obstructed by elevated blood pressure in the veins. This results in severe swelling of the leg and/or ankles, skin discoloration and varicose veins. Varicose veins, whether dark blue or purple in color, are prominently raised or swollen veins that look like twisted cords. Pain may be felt while walking or right after stopping. The legs may feel tired, restless and heavy.

5. Baker's Cyst, also known as popliteal cyst, is a collection of excess fluid at the back of the knee. When the cyst bursts, the fluid can go down to the calf muscles causing redness and pain. A small bulge at the back of the knee is a visible symptom of Baker’s cyst.

6. Sciatica or Sciatic pain starts from the lower back, going down the upper and lower leg, all the way to the foot. This condition causes pain in the calf, thigh, knee, and foot when there is compression of the sciatic nerves found at the base of the spine. Sciatic pain is described as tingly, dull, numb, sharp, continuous or intermittent. It is usually felt on one side of the body only.
To reduce the likelihood of experiencing calf pain, stretch the muscles prior to any intense physical activity. Avoid staying inactive for long periods of time as well. Drink plenty of fluids and keep your potassium, calcium, sodium and magnesium levels in check. There are many other causes of calf pain. Consult with your doctor if you feel something out of the ordinary. Calf pain can be avoided or reduced if you know the causes and symptoms of this problem.


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