Read below about calf pain, including causes, treatment options and remedies. Or get a personalized analysis of your calf pain from our A.I. health assistant. At Buoy, we build tools that help you know what’s wrong right now and how to get the right care.

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Calf Pain Symptoms

Call it a Charley Horse — or, more likely, yelp in pain that it's a charlie horse — a just leg cramp, many of us suffer from these annoyances or calf pain from time to time. Calf pain can be caused by a number of conditions from electrolyte deficiency and dehydration, to over-exercising, to edema.

The symptoms that are often associated with calf pain include:

  • Cramps in the calf area
  • Feeling of a muscle strain in the calf
  • Swelling of the calf
  • Tightness in the back of the leg
  • Unusual heat/unusual cold in the back of the leg
  • Tingling in the calf muscle area
  • Sharp pain
  • Weakness in the leg
  • Fluid retention
  • Numbness
  • Loss of balance or coordination

Calf pain usually presents with a sharp pain or even a dull aching pain with some tightness at the back of the leg, in the calf muscle area. Most times, calf pain is not a sign of a serious condition; however, it could be a sign of an underlying condition that causes swelling, tingling, and pain in that area of the leg including diabetes or sciatica.

Calf Pain Causes Overview

To understand calf pain, it helps to understand how the muscles are constructed here. The calf is actually comprised of two muscles of the leg: the gastrocnemius and the soleus.

Both muscles meet at the Achilles tendon, which attaches these muscles to the heel. Every time you move your leg or foot, you must use all of these muscles. Therefore, any strain to any one of these muscles when walking, jogging, lifting weights, or performing any type of exercise could contribute to calf pain.

The most common causes of calf pain include:

  • Muscle cramps: Muscle cramps are often a sign of dehydration or an electrolyte deficiency of magnesium or potassium. Getting more of these nutrients often helps alleviate leg cramps as well as drinking more water.

  • Muscle strains: Muscle strains are often caused by fatigue, injuring a muscle, overtraining, or overuse of the calf muscles. Lifting more weight than usual with your legs, moving heavy furniture, carrying large, heavy loads, starting a new job with lots of standing involved, all of these can cause muscle strains.

  • Achilles tendonitis: Achilles tendonitis is caused by strain to the Achilles tendon, which causes pain, swelling, and inflammation in the Achilles tendon. This can also cause pain in the connected calf muscles as well.

  • Sciatica: The sciatic nerve runs all the way down the lower leg and to the back of the knee. Any issues with this nerve will cause pain in the calf muscle area, which is typically accompanied by numbness and tingling all along that area. In some cases, pain is so severe that surgery is required to alleviate it.

  • Bruises and Contusions : A bruise is typically a result of a fall, bump, scratch, or sudden trauma to an area. If the calf is bruised, this could cause a lot of calf pain. Any bruises that have no causes or explanation should be examined by a doctor. Unexplained bruising could be a sign of a serious underlying disorder.

  • Diabetic neuropathy: Diabetes, in its late stages, begins to affect the nerves and blood vessels of the leg. Diabetic neuropathy is a type of nerve damage that affects the feet, legs, and hands. This condition is a common complication of diabetes resulting from overexposure to high blood sugar, genetic factors, or nerve inflammation.

  • Deep vein thrombosis: Deep vein thrombosis (DVT) is a blood clot that forms, typically in the arm or leg, and most often in the calf and thigh. Other symptoms include edema-like swelling of the limb, warmth in the limb affected, and skin discolorations in the limb affected. DVT is serious, as blood clots could move and travel to other parts of the body, most commonly the lungs (pulmonary embolism) - a potentially life-threatening condition.

A.I. Health Assistant Causes for Calf Pain

The list below shows results from the use of our A.I. Health Assistant by Buoy users who experienced calf pain. This list does not constitute medical advice.

  1. 1.Calf Strain

    A strain, commonly called a "pulled muscle," is when a muscle becomes overstretched, and microscopic tears occur. A calf strain happens when one of the muscles on the back of the lower leg is pulled.

    With proper medical attention, this condition should completely resolve.

    Rarity:
    Common
    Top Symptoms:
    pain in one calf, moderate calf pain, calf pain, sports injury, soccer injury
    Symptoms that always occur with calf strain:
    pain in one calf
    Urgency:
    Self-treatment
  2. 2.Repetitive Strain Injury of the Calf

    Repetitive strain injury of the calf is caused by consistent repetitive use.

    Duplicate: Resolves with rest

    Rarity:
    Uncommon
    Top Symptoms:
    lower leg numbness, calf pain from overuse
    Symptoms that always occur with repetitive strain injury of the calf:
    calf pain from overuse
    Symptoms that never occur with repetitive strain injury of the calf:
    recent calf injury, severe calf pain
    Urgency:
    Self-treatment
  3. 3.Calf Bruise

    A bruise is the damage of the blood vessels that return blood to the heart (the capillaries and veins), which causes pooling of the blood. This explains the blue/purple color of most bruises. Bruises of the calf are common, given the location on the body.

    Bruises will begin to heal over the course of a week

    Rarity:
    Uncommon
    Top Symptoms:
    pain in one calf, recent calf injury, calf pain from an injury, swollen calf, bruised calf
    Symptoms that always occur with calf bruise:
    recent calf injury, calf pain from an injury
    Urgency:
    Self-treatment
  4. 4.Deep Vein Thrombosis

    Deep vein thrombosis (DVT) is a blood clot that forms in a vein deep in the body. Most deep vein clots occur in the lower leg or thigh.

    Curable with medication or surgery but may recur.

    Rarity:
    Uncommon
    Top Symptoms:
    fever, thigh pain, upper leg swelling, calf pain, butt pain
    Urgency:
    Hospital emergency room

    Calf Pain Checker

    Take a quiz to find out why you’re having calf pain.

    Calf Pain Quiz
  5. 5.Achilles Tendonitis

    The Achilles tendon connects the calf muscles to the heel bone. Together, they help push the heel off the ground and let a person go up on their toes. Achilles tendinitis occurs when that tendon becomes swollen and painful near the bottom of the foot.

    Symptoms should resolve by themselves within weeks to months.

    Rarity:
    Uncommon
    Top Symptoms:
    achilles-area pain, stiff achilles tendon, swollen achilles
    Symptoms that always occur with achilles tendonitis:
    achilles-area pain
    Urgency:
    Phone call or in-person visit
  6. 6.Diabetic Neuropathy

    Diabetic neuropathy is a condition where pain, numbness, weakness, and motor loss occur in the limbs due to the effects of diabetes on the nerves.

    Symptoms can last a lifetime.

    Rarity:
    Ultra rare
    Top Symptoms:
    anxiety, depressed mood, trouble sleeping, diarrhea, fatigue
    Urgency:
    Primary care doctor
  7. 7.Achilles Tendon Rupture

    The Achilles tendon connects the calf muscles to the heel bone. Together, they help push the heel off the ground and let a person go up on their toes. If the Achilles tendon stretches too far, it can tear or rupture.

    Most people return to former level of activity after 4 to 6 months of post-surgery rehabilitation.

    Rarity:
    Rare
    Top Symptoms:
    achilles tendon pain, constant foot pain, sports injury, recent ankle injury, swollen achilles
    Symptoms that always occur with achilles tendon rupture:
    achilles tendon pain
    Urgency:
    Hospital emergency room
  8. 8.Peripheral Arterial Disease (Pad)

    Peripheral artery disease (PAD) occurs when the big blood vessels, called arteries, become too narrow due to clumps of fat (called plaques) building up inside the walls. If arteries become too narrow, not enough oxygen and nutrients are delivered to the muscles, skin, and organs. The arteries in the legs are often affected first, as they are the furthest from the heart.At first, PAD has no symptoms. As it gets worse, leg pain is likely to develop, leading to cramps in the calf, thigh, foot, or buttock upon exercise. PAD can also increase the risk of a blood clot if a piece of plaque detaches, leading to serious complications such as a heart attack or stroke.Peripheral artery disease is much more common in smokers and in people with diabetes. High blood pressure, high cholesterol, being overweight, and not getting much exercise also can put one at higher risk.

    The prognosis of this disease is highly variable and depends heavily on habits, medical history, and genetics. Peripheral artery disease is a chronic non-life threatening condition. Managing the disease, however, is very important in reducing the risk for stroke and heart attacks, so make sure to follow-up with a physician.

    Rarity:
    Common
    Top Symptoms:
    leg numbness, spontaneous foot pain, decreased exercise tolerance, cold feet, thigh pain
    Symptoms that never occur with peripheral arterial disease (pad):
    calf pain from an injury, thigh pain from an injury
    Urgency:
    Primary care doctor
  9. 9.Baker's Cyst (Popliteal Cyst)

    A Baker's cyst, also called as Popliteal cyst, is a fluid-filled mass that causes a bulge and a feeling of tightness behind the knee. The pain can get worse when the knee is fully flexed or extended.

    Recovery with nonsurgical treatment varies

    Rarity:
    Uncommon
    Top Symptoms:
    calf pain, swollen knee, knee pain that gets worse when squatting, knee instability, dull, achy knee pain
    Symptoms that always occur with baker's cyst (popliteal cyst):
    lump on the back of the knee, constant knee lump
    Urgency:
    Primary care doctor

Calf Pain Treatments and Relief

The best treatments for calf pain typically depend upon the cause.

However, calf pain caused by trauma, a pull, or a moderate injury of some kind can typically be eased with the following methods.

  • Rest, Ice, Compression, Elevation (RICE): This method is advised by all healthcare practitioners and anyone working at a hospital when they send you home with a pulled calf, tendon, or even a broken bone in some areas of the body.

First, rest the area—meaning, don't add insult to injury. Try not to use the injured leg. Ice: applying cold ice packs to the area can reduce inflammation and pain. Compression: use a leg brace or compression sock to reduce swelling and prevent any risk of blood clots. Then, elevation: elevating the calf above the level of your heart will get swelling and inflammation to decrease.

  • OTC medications: aspirin, ibuprofen, or naproxen can help relieve pain and inflammation.
  • Physical therapy: If the calf pain is caused by serious injury, such as the tearing of ligaments or tendons, your doctor may advise physical therapy.

FAQs About Calf Pain

Here are some frequently asked questions about calf pain.

Can alcohol cause calf pain?

Yes, if alcohol is consumed over a long period of time it can cause an alcoholic neuropathy. This means the consumption of alcohol can damage the nerves within the body. This damage starts with the longest nerves in the body which tend to service the limbs, arms or legs. Alcohol in high concentrations can kill neurons and tends to damage the longer neurons, first affecting the limbs. It may manifest as burning, pain, or cramping sensations in the legs.

Does blood clots lead to calf pain?

Blood clots can lead to calf pain depending on where they occur, especially if they they completely block blood flow to the affected leg. In some cases, a large blood clot can be painful and create a tender area on the calf. A leg with a dangerous clot, called a deep vein thrombosis (DVT), may be warmer than usual with redness or tenderness to the touch. It may have pain tracking on the pathway of major veins in the setting of an infection as well. If you have swelling of one leg, warmth, a tendency to clot, especially after sitting for a long car or plane ride, you should seek medical evaluation.

Why do my calves ache at night?

Restless leg syndrome is a common cause of leg pain or itchiness or discomfort at night that is alleviated by movement of the legs. It is much more common at night and may lead to sleep disturbances that impair functions during the day. It may cause jerking movements of the legs during the night commonly known as periodic leg movements.

Why are my calf muscles so tight?

Calf muscles can be tight for many reasons. One of the most common reasons for increased calf tightness is increased exertion of calves during the day. Commonly, shoes with a lift (e.g. high heels, wedges, etc.) can cause tightness of the calf muscles, especially if on their feet throughout the day. Additionally, any activity that involves using the calf muscles to flex the foot downward, like standing on the toes or pressing the accelerator of a car, can lead to calf tightness.

Can dehydration cause calf pain?

Dehydration can increase the chance of cramping for any muscle that is vigorously exercised. This includes muscles that are commonly used like hamstrings, quadriceps, or calves. If you are engaging in physical activity that takes advantage of calf muscles and you have not hydrated properly, it is possible to develop cramps in your calf muscles.

Questions Your Doctor May Ask About Calf Pain

  • Q.Did you injure your calf?
  • Q.Did you just suffer from a high impact injury (e.g., a fall, collision, accident or sports trauma)?
  • Q.Do you have any idea what caused your calf pain
  • Q.Have you ever been diagnosed with diabetes?

If you've answered yes to one or more of these questions, try our calf pain symptom checker to find out more.

Calf Pain Quiz

Calf Pain Symptom Checker Statistics

  • People who have experienced calf pain have also experienced:

    • 4% Lower Back Pain
    • 4% Knee Pain
    • 3% Hip Pain
  • People who have experienced calf pain had symptoms persist for:

    • 30% Less Than a Week
    • 25% Over a Month
    • 22% Less Than a Day
  • People who have experienced calf pain were most often matched with:

    • 33% Calf Strain
    • 33% Repetitive Strain Injury of the Calf
    • 33% Calf Bruise
  • Source: Aggregated and anonymized results from visits to the Buoy AI health assistant (check it out by clicking on “Take Quiz”).

A.I. Health Assistant

Take a quiz to find out why you’re having calf pain

Calf Pain Quiz