Stretches and Treatment for Tight Calves

Medically reviewed by Gregory Minnis, DPT on February 12, 2018Written by Ashley Marcin on February 12, 2018

Overview

Your calves may feel tight for a number of different reasons. The calf is made up of two muscles called the gastrocnemius and the soleus. These muscles are taxed on a daily basis by walking from place to place or participating in strenuous exercise.

When they don’t have their normal flexibility, it may affect your distribution of weight and the pressure you’re applying to other areas of your body as you move around. As a result, your foot, ankle, and knee may not function how they should. This may cause tightness, pain, and even injury, sidelining you from your favorite activities.

What are the symptoms?

The symptoms you’ll experience with tight calf muscles can vary depending on the cause.

If your muscles are cramped, you may feel anything from slight discomfort to severe pain. The muscle may feel hard to the touch and even twitch under the skin. Cramping can last anywhere from just a couple seconds to 15 minutes, or sometimes longer. You may notice cramping right after exercise or up to four to six hours later.

Other symptoms may include:

  • sudden pain in the back of your calf or behind your knee
  • trouble standing on your tiptoes
  • pain, swelling, or bruising
  • pain, especially when resistance is applied to the muscles

What are the causes?

Tightness or pain in the calves is the result of overuse. Activities like running and playing sports can be hard on your calf muscles. Endurance sports are particularly tough on the body.

Marathon runners, triathletes, and older individuals who do lots of strenuous exercises may be at of developing tight calves or even muscle cramps.

Other causes of calf pain or cramping might include:

Stretches to relieve tight calves

If you notice your calf muscles are tight, regular stretching can help. Try going through the following exercises daily. You may even want to stretch twice a day to start. This can help lengthen the muscle fiber and possibly lessen the pain you’re experiencing.

Calf stretch 1

  1. Stand near a wall with one foot in front of the other, front knee slightly bent.
  2. Keep your back knee straight, your heel on the ground, and lean toward the wall.
  3. Feel the stretch all along the calf of your back leg.
  4. Hold this stretch for seconds.
  5. Switch legs, then alternate for a total of 3 repetitions.

Calf stretch 2

  1. Stand near a wall with one foot in front of the other, front knee slightly bent.
  2. Also bend your back knee, keeping your heel on the ground, as you lean toward the wall.
  3. Feel the stretch in the lower part of your calf muscle.
  4. Hold this stretch for seconds.
  5. Switch legs, then alternate for a total of 3 repetitions.

Calf stretch 3

  1. For a more advanced stretch, stand on a step. Place the ball of your foot on the edge of the step. Your heel should be off the step.
  2. Slowly drop your heel down as you carry weight through the leg. You may hold onto something, like a banister or the wall, as you lower.
  3. Hold this position for seconds.
  4. Switch legs, then alternate for a total of 3 repetitions.

Calf stretch 4

  1. Lie down on a yoga mat, then push your body up so you’re on all fours.
  2. Straighten your arms and legs, and raise your hips into the air, forming an upside-down V with your body. Your knees and elbows should be straight.
  3. Slowly lift one foot off the ground and place it on the opposite ankle.
  4. Gently lower the heel of your lower foot to the ground or as close as you can comfortably get.
  5. Slowly raise your heel so you’re back on the ball of your foot again.
  6. Repeat as part of your warmup routine on each leg.

Ease into all stretching slowly and steadily. Bouncing or stretching too fast may injure your muscles.

Stretching may feel uncomfortable at first, but it shouldn’t hurt. Start with holding a stretch for a short period of time and work up to longer sessions.

Other treatments

RICE

Rest, ice, compression, and elevation (RICE) is good for immediate treatment of muscle issues in the first hours after you notice tightness and pain. Following the RICE method helps reduce damage in the muscles.

Try using an ice pack for 20 minutes every two hours while resting and elevating the leg. A compression bandage may help keep bleeding and swelling under control. Elevating the area can further help reduce swelling.

Over-the-counter medications

Over-the-counter pain medications may temporarily relieve any pain you have. Try ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin IB) or naproxen (Aleve).

Physical therapy

If your calves are chronically tight, you may want to try physical therapy. A physical therapist can prescribe customized stretches, exercises, and other treatments to help with anything from pain to muscle imbalances.

You may need a referral to see a physical therapist. Your insurance may or may not cover all of the costs. To find a local physical therapist in the United States, try searching the .

Massage therapy

Massage therapy is another option. A massage therapist uses their hands to manipulate the body’s muscles and soft tissues, helping with anything from pain to muscle tension. Your doctor may refer you to a licensed therapist or, if you’re in the United States, you can search the to find one near you.

Massage may or may not be covered by your health insurance. It’s best to call ahead to find out about any associated copays or out-of-pocket costs.

Are there any complications?

Most cases of tight calf muscles respond well to home treatment with stretching or the RICE method. You may not see results immediately, so ease up on the activities that are causing tightness and pain.

Without treatment, you may develop more serious complications, like:

Contact your doctor if your tight calves don’t ease up after stretching and rest. You may have a more serious condition, like DVT or tendonitis, that requires medical attention.

See your doctor if you have the following symptoms in addition to tight calves:

  • extreme pain
  • swelling
  • inflammation
  • discharge
  • pain that gets worse

Preventing tight calves

Stretching regularly may be your best bet for keeping your calf muscles loose and pain-free. Here are some other things you can do to prevent tight muscles:

  • Warm up before stretching and other exercise. A slow walk or jog for a few minutes to get the blood flowing.
  • Check out your shoes. When’s the last time you bought new ones? When old sneakers wear down, they provide less support for your muscles and joints.
  • Wear compression sleeves. These inexpensive sock-like devices are worn over your lower legs. They may help promote better blood flow to your muscles and temporarily relieve pain during motion. You can purchase them at athletic supply stores, or .
  • Engage in regular physical therapy or massage therapy. If you participate in endurance sports that aggravate your calves, continual care by a professional may keep you running strong.
  • Work on your overall fitness. Some cramping may be due to muscle atrophy and inactivity. This is especially true for people over age .
  • Stay hydrated. Drink plenty of water throughout the day. Eat a well-balanced diet that includes sources of calcium, potassium, and magnesium.

The takeaway

Don’t ignore tight calf muscles. They’re likely telling you something. You may need to slow down for a while or make a doctor’s appointment to rule out more serious conditions, like DVT. After some rest and stretching, you should be back on your feet in no time.

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