What causes calf pain?

Most calf pain is due to overuse, injury, and age-related wear and tear on the muscles, tendons and ligaments of the calf. Usually these conditions are not serious, and you can largely prevent and treat overuse and minor injuries with self-care and lifestyle changes. For example, proper rest between periods of exertion and abstaining from extreme sports without proper conditioning are two practical methods of avoiding trauma and pulled muscles.

However, infectious diseases, blood circulation problems, and other abnormal processes can also affect the calf. In some cases, calf pain may be a symptom of a serious or life-threatening condition. In particular, upper calf pain or pain behind the knee is one sign of deep vein thrombosis, which is a blood clot deep in the leg that can lead to a pulmonary embolism, heart attack or stroke. Calf pain can also be a sign of peripheral artery disease, which leads to intermittent pain in the legs, particularly upon mild exertion or walking.

Injury-related causes of calf pain

Calf pain may arise from injuries including:

  • Laceration or contusion

  • Muscle cramp (charley horse) commonly caused by dehydration or overuse

  • Pulled or torn muscle or ligament

  • Strains and sprains

Infection-related causes of calf pain

Calf pain may arise from various infections including:

  • Cellulitis (skin infection)

  • Infected wound or other sore

Degenerative, inflammatory, and neurological causes of calf pain

Calf pain can be caused by degenerative, inflammatory, and neurological conditions including:

  • Nerve entrapment or compression

  • Peripheral neuropathy, such as diabetic neuropathy

  • Rheumatoid arthritis

  • Tendinitis (inflammation of a tendon)

  • Varicose veins

Other causes of calf pain

Calf pain can be due to other conditions including:

  • Cancer

  • Deep vein thrombosis (blood clot in the leg that can break loose from the leg, causing a pulmonary embolism in the lung, a heart attack or stroke)

  • Peripheral artery disease (PAD, also called peripheral vascular disease, or PVD; a narrowing of arteries due to a buildup of fat and cholesterol on the walls of arteries, which limits blood flow to the extremities.)

Questions for diagnosing the cause of calf pain

To diagnose the underlying cause of calf pain, your doctor or licensed health care practitioner will ask you several questions related to your symptoms. You can best help your health care practitioner in diagnosing the underlying cause of calf pain by providing complete answers to these questions:

  • What is the exact location of your pain?

  • Describe the pain. When did it start? Did it develop slowly or suddenly? Is it is constant or intermittent?

  • Is there any swelling?

  • Are you are experiencing any other symptoms?

Provide your full medical history, including all medical conditions, surgeries and treatments, family history, and a complete list of the medications and dietary supplements that you take.

What are the potential complications of calf pain?

Complications associated with calf pain can be progressive and vary depending on the underlying cause. Mild calf pain due to overuse usually responds to rest, ice, and over-the-counter anti-inflammatory medications. Because calf pain can be due to a serious disease, failure to seek treatment can result in complications and permanent damage. It is important to visit your health care provider when you experience any kind of persistent pain or other unusual symptoms. Once the underlying cause is diagnosed, following the treatment plan outlined by your doctor can lower your risk of potential complications including:

  • Chronic pain

  • Inability to perform daily living tasks

  • Loss of limb (amputation)

  • Loss of strength

  • Permanent nerve damage

  • Pulmonary embolism (blood clot in the lung)

  • Spread of infection

  • Stroke 

References:

  1. Leg pain. Medline Plus, a service of the National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health. http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/003182.htm.
  2. About Peripheral Artery Disease (PAD). American Heart Association. http://www.heart.org/HEARTORG/Conditions/More/PeripheralArteryDisease/About-Peripheral-Artery-Diseas....
INTRODUCTION

What is calf pain?

Calf pain is any feeling of discomfort in the fleshy tissue on the back side of the lower leg, from below the knee to above the ankle. Your calves are made up of muscles, tendons, ligaments, nerves, and blood vessels, all of which are subject to injury, infection, or other conditions that can be painful.

... Read more about calf painintroduction

SYMPTOMS

What other symptoms might occur with calf pain?

Other symptoms may occur with calf pain depending on the underlying disease, disorder, or condition. For example, a soft tissue infection or inflammation in the calf might be accompanied by redness or warmth in the area. Calf pain due to a pulled muscle may be associated with swelling from fluid buildup. Other symptoms that may accompany calf pain include:

Medical Reviewer: Cynthia Haines, MD Last Annual Review Date: Aug 1, 2013 Copyright: © Copyright 2014 Health Grades, Inc. All rights reserved. May not be reproduced or reprinted without permission from Health Grades, Inc. Use of this information is governed by the HealthGrades User Agreement.

This Article is Filed Under: Bones, Joints and Muscles, Heart Attack, Stroke


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