What you need yo know about tight calves

Tight calves can be uncomfortable and cause walking difficulties. Tight muscles can result from overuse or cramps, but can help with several treatments and stretches.

Behind the shin bone, just above the knees, are the calf muscles, called gastrocnemius and the soleus muscles. When a person walks, runs or stands they pull the heel up.

There are many possible reasons for feeling tight and uncomfortable in the calf muscles. Continue reading for more information on possible causes of tight calves and ways of treating or preventing them.

Overuse, cramps, and strains are possible causes of tight calves.
Overuse, cramps, and strains are possible causes of tight calves.

Causes

Causes of tight calves can include:

Cramps

Cramps are a typical cause of tight-felt calf muscles. A cramp is where the muscle contracts suddenly and involuntarily without relaxing.

Cramps are common in calves according to American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons (AAOS). They also occur regularly in other muscles of the legs including the thigh hamstrings and quadriceps.

Why cramps may occur is unknown, but some possible reasons include:

  • not stretching before activity
  • weak calf muscles
  • a lack of minerals or salts
  • muscle fatigue

Overuse

The excessive use of the calf muscles can lead to tightness.

People who exercise frequently run a higher risk of overuse of the calf muscles. Continuing overuse of tight calves can result in more serious injuries.

Strains

Calf strains in the back of the lower leg can cause tightness, pain and swelling.

Too vigorous exercising can lead to contracting and abruptly lengthening of the calf muscles, and this action produces strain on the calf. In severe cases, the same action can cause a calf muscle tear.

Other causes

There are some other potential causes of tight calves that are less common. These include:

  • dehydration
  • side effects of medication
  • peripheral vascular disease
  • reduced blood flow to the calves
  • limited range of motion in the ankle
  • dietary imbalance or deficiency
  • deep vein thrombosis

Accompanying symptoms 

Tight calves will feel difficult to touch. The muscles can twitch slightly from the inflammation, or feel warm. They can be painful especially when they are under pressure.

In some cases there can be cramping. The cramps will cause further pain, even if the calf is not put under pressure.

Where tightness results from strain, overuse or injury, other symptoms may include:

  • swelling and bruising
  • sudden sharp pains
  • difficulty flexing the toes
  • muscle fatigue in the calves

If there is severe pain in the calves which gets worse under pressure, seeing a doctor immediately is important. Such symptoms may suggest damage to a broken bone or severe muscle.

Stretches and exercises

Performing these stretches and exercises is beneficial for rehabilitation and for potential prevention of tight calves. Stretching, for example, may reduce the risk of a strain. Fortifying exercises will long avoid muscle tiredness.

Some exercises and stretches which may help include:

Standing wall stretch

Standing wall stretch

The AAOS recommend a standing wall stretch to help prevent muscle cramps in the calves. To perform a standing wall stretch:

  • stand facing a wall and stretch the arms out to place both hands flat against it
  • put one foot in front of the other
  • the leg closest to the wall should have a slight bend in the knee
  • the other leg should be straight with the foot flat on the ground
  • hold the position for about 30 seconds, pressing the heel of the straight leg into the floor
  • Repeat for each leg

Seated towel stretch

Seated towel stretch

To perform a seated towel stretch:

  • sit on the floor with a straight back and the legs out in front
  • using a towel or exercise band, loop it around the upper foot and toes on one of the legs, holding each side of the towel or band
  • gently pull the towel or band back, flexing the toes toward the body
  • hold the stretch for 30 seconds before releasing it and resting for 30 seconds
  • do 3 repetitions on each leg

Calf raises on a step

Calf raises on a step

Calf raises are a great way to strengthen the calves and stretch them out. To raise the Calf:

  • stand with the toes and front half of the feet on the edge of a sturdy stool or step, with the heels hanging back over the edge
  • slowly rise onto the balls of the feet
  • lower back down so that the heels drop just below the balls of the feet
  • repeat this 10 times

Treatment options

In most cases, tight calf muscles don’t require medical treatment.

Typically, muscle cramps resolve untreated. They can last as few seconds, or as long as 15 minutes or more. This may help stretch and exercise the calves more regularly for frequent cramping.

If overuse causes the tight calves, take a break from any activity that could strain the calf muscles. Treatment is not required unless the overuse results in injury.

For a strain, recuperation will be supported by the RICE method — rest, ice, compression and elevation. Over- the-counter can also help pain relievers.

A doctor may also recommend physical therapy, sometimes. Other option is surgery, in more severe cases. Surgery could be required if the calf muscle is damaged.

Complications

Tight calves can cause further complications, especially without sufficient rest.

  • stress fractures
  • shin splints
  • muscle damage

Prevention tips

Stretching regularly before activities may help prevent tight calves or injury.

People can avoid overworking the muscles of the calf by resting between exercises that put a strain on those muscles for sufficient periods. For example, it is best to include at least one day of rest between in-gym leg strength training sessions.

Certain sports are more likely to cause calf injury than others. Sports requiring sudden movements, stops or turns can increase the risk of an injury to the calf. This could include, for example, sports such as tennis, football, and soccer.

Eating a healthy, balanced diet and getting plenty of fluids will ensure that the calves and other muscles get enough nutrients for their proper functioning.

Is it okay to exercise with tight calves?

Tight calves can be either an indication of overuse or a mild injury. Continuing exercising can be fine if there is no limited range of movement, pain or swelling, but it is important to note that continuing exercising can increase the risk of injury.

If the calves are painful it is better to rest for a couple of days or until the pain is gone.

Outlook

Tight, easy-to-manage calves are common. Typically, they are not a cause for concern and will mostly go away on their own. Injuries could require some treatment at home, such as stretches or RICE.

If severe pain worsens under pressure, it could be a sign of a more serious injury. In these cases get in touch with a doctor immediately.

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