What Are Tight Calf Muscles?
The Gastrocnemius muscle is the larger muscle at the back of the lower leg. It attaches above the knee joint and it inserts into the heel bone using the Achilles tendon. It is actually the muscle that forms the bulge visible beneath the skin in your calf.
The Soleus muscle is a smaller muscle lower down in the leg and can be found under the Gastrocnemius. The Soleus attaches below the knee joint and then also to the heel bone via the Achilles tendon. Feeling pain from tight calf muscles can be attributed to either of these two muscles, and either muscle can be strained or torn.
Both muscles act to point the foot away from your body (plantarflex). Since the Gastrocnemius attaches above the knee, it also helps you bend your knee. When your knee is bent, the Soleus muscle becomes the main plantarflexor. If the Soleus muscle is injured, you might feel pain lower in the leg and also when you contract the muscle against resistance when your knee is bent. Either can easily be described as tight calves.
Strong and healthy calf muscles are essential for the following functions:
- Raising your heel – The primary function of the calf muscles is to raise the heels. During walking, running or jumping, the calf muscle pulls the heel up to allow forward movement. People can suffer from calf strains when their muscles are stretched beyond what they can normally withstand. A good example of this would be ballet dancers who are up on their toes a lot. It is critical for dancers to work to prevent tight calf muscles so they can avoid injury.
- Circulation – When the calf muscle moves, it helps force blood from the lower leg back up to the heart. This is an important function in preventing the formation of blood clots and varicose veins in the lower leg. One of the reasons why physicians encourage walking for heart patients is because it is an important way to improve circulation in the legs and elsewhere in the body.
- Supporting your knees and hips – Because your calves have to support all of your weight and help you move, they should be as long and lean as possible to avoid tight calf pain. Since calf muscles can shorten under their burden, women who wear high heels frequently have shorter calf muscles. Shorter, tight calf muscles can lead to tight calves and pain in the knees and hips.
Calf strain injuries or tight calves usually occur when an athlete experiences a sudden pushing off force or an over-stretch of tight calf muscles. Strains also occur when a sudden stress is put on the calves, such as when a runner takes off in a sprint without any warm-up. This over-stretching can result in small micro-tears to the muscle fibers or a more serious rupture of the muscle fibers. Because of this, you may be more likely to get a calf muscle injury or tight calves if you play soccer, tennis, basketball, football or a similar sport that involves sprinting with sudden stops and starts. Dancers and runners can suffer calf injuries as well.
Are you experiencing pain from tight calves?
Tight calves are very common and most of the time they will not cause serious problems. However, people who have tight calf muscles are more prone to severe strains, or their tight calves contribute to other problems such as back pain. A much less severe reason for calf pain is a muscle spasm or cramp. This involuntary contraction of the tight calf muscle may be short-lived but can be very painful.
In addition to having an increased risk of injury, athletes who have tight calves may discover that the tight calf muscles affect their sports performance and makes activities which require power very difficult. When a tight calf muscle is forced to move forcefully outside of its comfortable range, it greatly increases the chance the muscle will tear.
What can cause you to have painful or tight calves?
Footwear: If you wear high-heeled shoes, your calves are kept in a state of perpetually shortened length.
Running: Runners are prone to tight calf muscles because when you run, your calf muscles constantly work to stabilize the ankle, absorb each landing and push the heel back off the ground.
Inadequate stretching: If you do not stretch properly before and after being physically active, you are more likely to have tight calf muscles. It is especially important to stretch properly after exercise because the muscles are warm and that is when they are more receptive to stretching.
Walking: If you do a lot of walking as part of your job and/or part of your exercise routine, you will probably experience tight calf muscles. Your calves, hamstrings and glutes are the primary leg muscles that you use for walking, especially when walking uphill.
Genetics: Some people are simply genetically prone to tight calf muscles. This is due to either their inherited shape or length of the calf muscle or the way that their muscle (and the nerves that feed into it) behaves.
Muscle weakness: Tight calf muscles can be a symptom of weakness elsewhere in the leg. If your glutes or hamstrings are weak, your calves will often try to make up for that weakness. So when the muscle gets overused, it causes the calf to tighten. On that same note, calf tension is rarely experienced alone. If you have tight calf muscles, there is a really good chance that your hamstrings are tight as well because of the synergistic relationship of your hamstrings and calves.