What is a Calf Tear? The Symptoms & Treatment Options

Written by Leah Bell-Steele
Physiotherapist, University of Queensland
Medically reviewed by Dr Gina Arena
Research Fellow, University of Western Australia
Reviewed on April 7, 2022
Contributed by Nikita Mistry
Physiotherapist, Western Sydney University

Man holding his calf in pain from a calf tear

Torn calf muscles are one of the most common sports injuries in Australia. In the professional Australian Foot League, calf strains were the second most common injury (behind hamstring strains).[1] A study from La Trobe University showed that around 5.2% of high-level athletes would experience calf injuries.[2]

The scientific name of the calf muscle is the triceps surae. This refers to the single soleus muscle and a gastrocnemius muscle that is made up of two muscle bellies. A calf tear can involve an injury to either one of the several muscle bellies.

Read on to understand what you should know about a calf tear; the risk factors, treatment options and expected recovery time.

What is a Torn Calf Muscle?

A torn calf muscle refers to the overstretching and tearing injury of either of the calf muscles (gastrocnemius and soleus). They are classified on a scale of grade 1 to grade 3 calf strains. A complete tear of the calf is also known as a calf rupture.

What are the symptoms of a torn calf muscle?

The main symptoms of a calf tear include a snapping or popping sensation at the time of injury, followed by swelling and bruising, as well as calf pain that radiates down the back of the leg, with weakness when trying to weight-bear on the injured leg.

Torn calf muscles are categorised based on the severity of the injury.

Grade 1 - mild tear of only a few muscle fibres of the calf and doesn’t affect the strength of the muscle.

  • Pain

  • Tenderness

  • Normal mobility is preserved

Grade 2 - moderate stretch with tearing of muscle fibres. Weakness and limping can be observed.

  • Pain

  • Tenderness

  • Bruising

  • Limited ability to walk

Grade 3 - severe tear and complete rupture of the calf muscle.

  • Visible dent on the surface of the calf

  • Bruising

  • Extreme pain

  • Swelling

  • Inability to walk or use the affected leg

Common symptoms of a calf tear

  • Sudden pain at the back of your leg

  • Deep muscle pain when bending your ankle

  • Difficulty bending the knee and standing on the ball of your foot

  • Popping feeling on your calf

  • Swelling

  • Bruising

What causes a calf tear?

A torn muscle is usually caused by overstretching the muscle suddenly or rapidly contracting the muscle in an activity like a jump, hop or pivot. In Australia, the most common causes are sports such as AFL, netball and soccer.

Common causes of a calf tear

  • Lack of warm-up before intense activities

  • Weak and tight calf muscles

  • Not wearing proper footwear when running

  • Intense sports activities

Sports that increase the risk of a torn calf muscle

Sports that rely on bursts of speed, such as football and sprinting, require a lot of power from the calf muscle. This motion causes tremendous stress on the muscle, which may result in tearing.

  • Sprinting

  • AFL

  • Netball

  • Long-distance running

  • Football

  • Soccer

  • Basketball

Various factors may put you at risk for having a calf tear. If you injured your calf during training or in a game, it is best to have it checked before engaging in physical activities again to prevent the worsening of your condition.

How is a calf tear diagnosed?

Having a torn calf muscle can be excruciating and limit your overall mobility. Most people who have a calf tear will not be able to participate in sports for at least a few weeks.

There are several options when it comes to treating a calf tear. One of the more common, and the treatment option that is referred by Australian GPs the most, is physiotherapy.

To begin the process of treatment, your consultation will first start with an interview-like process with your physiotherapist. Your physiotherapist will ask vital questions about your condition and medical history. Take this time to discuss all of your symptoms and how you think you tore your calf.

After taking your medical history, your physiotherapist will perform a physical evaluation of your calf muscle and other related structures to identify the extent of your injury and rule out other factors that may be causing your symptoms.

Your physiotherapist will then create a specific treatment plan for you and will guide you through your recovery.

This will also include:

  • Detailed treatment program

  • Specific treatment goals and recovery time

  • Home exercise programs to maximise your recovery at home

  • Medical guidelines to gradually return to sports.

How is a torn calf muscle treated?

Having a torn calf muscle can affect your quality of life and mobility. Moreover, sports participation will be limited until you have recovered from your injury.

There are several options when it comes to treating calf tears. One of the more common and the treatment option referred to by Australian GPs the most is physiotherapy.

Physiotherapists routinely rehabilitate sports injuries just like torn calf muscles. They are in the best position to give appropriate treatment and help you regain your normal function and return to sports.

People who have had surgery to repair their calf muscle should still undergo extensive physiotherapy to make a full recovery and prevent complications.

Treating a torn calf muscle will focus on decreasing signs of inflammation, improving the strength of the calf and ensuring that you are safe to return to sports.

Depending on the severity of your torn calf muscle, a physiotherapist may provide you with a combination of the following types of treatments:

  • Cryotherapy/Ice - In the first stages of injury,ice can help limit the swelling and control inflammation

  • Kinesio Taping - Specialised taping techniques to help control swelling, decrease pain and provide additional support for the calf muscle while recovering.

  • Soft tissue mobilisation - Hands-on techniques used to reduce muscle spasms and promote muscle relaxation.

  • Manual therapy - Specialised treatment your physiotherapist uses to improve muscle tension, promote muscle relaxation and optimal movement of the joints.

  • Therapeutic exercises - Involves corrective exercises to regain the strength of the calf muscle and correct impairments.

  • Stretching exercises - Gentle stretching techniques of the calf to maintain range of motion and improve muscle flexibility.

  • Plyometric exercises - Used during the later stage of your recovery to prepare your calf muscle for high-intensity activities and ensure a safe return to sports.

A typical physiotherapy session with your local physiotherapist will last anywhere between 30-60 minutes. It is not uncommon for patients to feel the benefits in just one session.

Next step: Creating a treatment plan made for you

After your consultation, your physiotherapist will create a detailed step by step treatment plan to help you recover from your injury.

Self-care for torn calf muscles

If you think you have a torn calf muscle, here are the best things you can do and avoid.

Things to do:

  1. Rest

Resting is a vital part of your recovery process that allows your damaged soft tissue to heal.

  1. Protect your calf

Minimise movement of your calf for 1-3 days to reduce bleeding and reduce the risk of aggravating your injury.

  1. Elevate

Elevate your leg higher than your heart to help control the swelling and inflammation.

  1. Compress

Use a compression bandage or tape to help control the swelling on the area of your calf.

Things to avoid:

  1. Avoid resting for too long

As the inflammation subsides, start to gradually load your leg by controlled walking and simple movement of the ankles.

  1. Avoid high-intensity activities

Running and jumping should be avoided for a few weeks to give time for the tendons and muscles of your calf to heal correctly.

Do I need a specialist or surgery?

A calf tear rarely needs surgery to heal, however it could be necessary in cases of complete tendon rupture (Grade 3).

Ultrasound imaging can be done to see the extent of your injury and evaluate other structures around your calf. It can also be used to rule out other conditions such as deep vein thrombosis.

Your GP may also prescribe you pain relievers and steroid injections to help you manage the pain.

Whether your condition requires surgery or not, physiotherapy will be vital in assisting in your treatment to make a full recovery from a torn calf muscle.

What is the recovery time / prognosis for a calf tear?

Ultimately, recovery time is dependent on your proactiveness to seek professional treatment and the severity of your calf pain and injury.

Full recovery from a calf tear may take up to 6 weeks. Generally, you will gradually feel better after a few days of rest. However, severe swelling can cause extreme pain and discomfort if left untreated.

Physiotherapy improves the overall outcome of patients who are suffering from a torn calf muscle. Through optimised rehabilitation, athletes can return to sports safely with a decreased risk of reinjury.

Important factors in recovery include:

  • Sticking to your treatment program and regularly exercising

  • Resuming your sports activity gradually

  • Paying attention to pain, and resting as necessary.

Can a torn calf muscle be prevented?

The tips below can help you prevent a calf tear. It will also guide you through your recovery if you have already injured your calf.

  • Warm-up - Proper warm-up helps activate critical muscles of your lower body before engaging in strenuous physical activity.

  • Stretch regularly – Stretching your calf muscles will allow you to prevent tightness, maintain range of motion and increase your muscle’s flexibility.

  • Strengthen your calves – Strengthening your calves allows you to overcome the demand of physical activity, especially during sprints.

  • Pace your activities – Allow sufficient rest periods in between your training or sports events. Microtears may develop from overuse of your muscles which can lead to a full-blown injury over time.

Outlook and the main takeaways

Many factors may put you at risk of having a torn calf muscle. It is crucial to pay attention to any pain or issue, particularly when you are playing sports. Proper training and exercise can go a long way in keeping your body healthy.

If you injured your calf and suspect a calf tear, book a consultation with a physiotherapist today and start your recovery immediately.

Anatomy of the calf muscle

The calf muscle is located at the back part of your lower leg extending from the base of your thigh down to your heel bone.

The calf consists of two major muscles:

  • Gastrocnemius – is a large muscle that forms the bulk of your calf muscle.

  • Soleus – is a flat muscle underneath the gastrocnemius.

Together these two muscles act as a solid force to pull the ankle downward (plantarflexion).

Written by Leah Bell-Steele
Physiotherapist, University of Queensland
Published on April 7, 2022
Medically reviewed by Dr Gina Arena
Research Fellow, University of Western Australia
Reviewed on April 7, 2022
Contributed by Nikita Mistry
Physiotherapist, Western Sydney University
Medical reviewers
Last medically reviewed on April 7, 2022
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