Calf Pain: Causes and Treatments

Medically Reviewed By Lauren Jarmusz, PT, DPT, OCS
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Calf pain is any type of discomfort in the calf, which includes the area on the back side of the lower leg from above the ankle to below the knee. This type of pain can arise from many conditions, ranging from injuries to chronic nerve conditions. Your calves contain muscles, ligaments, tendons, blood vessels, and nerves. Injury, infection, or other conditions can affect all of these components.

Read on to learn more about possible causes and treatments for calf pain.

What are the causes of calf pain?

A woman stretching and holding her calf muscle
Michela Ravasio/Stocksy United

Calf pain can develop due to various conditions. Overuse, injury, and age-related wear and tear may cause pain. More serious conditions, like infections or circulation issues, can also contribute.

Injuries

Calf pain may arise from various injuries, including:

  • laceration or contusion
  • muscle cramps, which may result from dehydration
  • pulled or torn muscle
  • fully or partially torn tendon, such as the Achilles tendon

Infections

Certain infections may also cause calf pain, like cellulitis. Cellulitis is a common skin infection resulting from bacteria. Any breaks in the skin — like cuts, bites, or puncture wounds — can allow bacteria to enter the bloodstream and cause cellulitis or other infections.

Common symptoms of infection include pain, skin discoloration, and swelling.

Inflammatory or neurological conditions

Inflammatory or neurological conditions can cause calf pain. These may include:

Other causes of calf pain

Calf pain can also develop due to serious, life threatening conditions, including:

What are the treatments for calf pain?

You may be able to treat some of the milder causes of calf pain, like muscle strains or cramps, at home.

For a calf muscle cramp, you may be able to relieve pain with a few simple steps:

  • Stop the activity causing pain and rest your leg.
  • Massage your calf gently to relax the muscles and other soft tissues.
  • If your calf muscle is tense, apply heat. If it is sore or tender, apply a cold pack.

For a calf muscle strain, try following the RICE protocol:

  • R for rest: Avoid the activity that caused the strain and rest your leg.
  • I for ice: Use an ice pack wrapped in a towel or cloth on your calf for 20 minutes, several times a day.
  • C for compression: An elastic compression bandage can help relieve swelling and blood loss.
  • E for elevation: Elevate your calf above the level of your heart when you rest.

Staying hydrated and taking over-the-counter pain relievers may also be beneficial.

If you have a muscle, tendon, or ligament tear, you may need surgery to repair the damage. Many people also require physical therapy after the procedure.

Other treatments

Other treatments for calf pain will depend on the underlying cause:

  • Neurological causes: Doctors may prescribe medications to treat nerve-related pain. Depending on the underlying cause, lifestyle and diet changes may also be necessary.
  • Deep vein thrombosis: For blood clots, doctors typically prescribe “clot-busting” drugs, blood thinners, and compression stockings.
  • Infections: Doctors generally prescribe antibiotics to clear bacterial infections.
  • Peripheral artery disease: Medications may be able to treat peripheral artery disease and relieve pain. These include drugs to lower cholesterol, reduce blood pressure, improve blood flow, and prevent clots. Lifestyle changes and surgery can also be beneficial.
  • Varicose veins: Many people are able to relieve pain associated with varicose veins through self-care, including compression stockings and pain relievers. Your doctor may also recommend removing painful varicose veins.

What are some potential complications of calf pain?

Because calf pain can be due to serious underlying conditions, it may result in severe complications and permanent damage without treatment.

Once doctors can diagnose the underlying cause, following their treatment plan can lower your risk of potential complications, including:

  • chronic pain
  • difficulty performing daily tasks
  • loss of limb or strength
  • permanent nerve damage
  • blood clots
  • spread of infection

Can you prevent calf pain?

While not all causes of calf pain are preventable, you may be able to prevent overuse and minor injuries with self-care and lifestyle changes. For example, proper rest between periods of exertion and conditioning before extreme sports are two practical methods of avoiding injury and pulled muscles.

Other ways to help prevent calf injuries include:

  • using the proper equipment when you work out, such as supportive shoes
  • warming up before you exercise
  • taking time to stretch properly
  • drinking plenty of water
  • cooling down after exercise
  • scheduling “off days” to recuperate

When should you see a doctor for calf pain?

Although some causes of calf pain are not serious, there are times when contacting a medical professional is the safest option to determine the extent of the injury or diagnose more serious causes.

Contact your doctor about calf pain when you experience:

  • persistent pain after walking or mild exertion
  • a cooler and paler leg than usual
  • lower leg swelling, warmth, and tenderness to the touch
  • red or discolored streaks around a tender area or lump in the calf
  • sensation loss in the calf or in other parts of the leg
  • calf pain after prolonged sitting
  • a sensation of popping or tearing at the onset of the pain
  • pain that worsens despite self-care

Call 911 or go to your nearest emergency room for calf pain when you:

  • cannot stand or walk on the affected leg
  • experience redness or discoloration, swelling, and warmth in the calf along with a fever
  • have shortness of breath with swelling in one or both legs

Frequently asked questions

Here are a few other questions people commonly ask about calf pain. Lauren Jarmusz, PT, DPT, OCS, has reviewed the answers.

Can dehydration cause calf pain?

Dehydration can cause muscle cramps and pain in the calf. Cramps may become more frequent in hot weather when your body loses more fluid.

Should I run with calf pain?

If you have calf pain, it is a good idea to avoid any activities that can worsen it. If your calf pain does not improve after rest, icing, or other self-care measures, contact your doctor.

Summary

Calf pain can result from various conditions. While some causes may be mild and will resolve on their own, others will need prompt evaluation from a medical professional.

Contact your doctor if you have calf pain that is severe, persistent, or occurring with other concerning symptoms.

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Medical Reviewer: Lauren Jarmusz, PT, DPT, OCS
Last Review Date: 2022 Sep 6
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THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.
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