Calf pain: symptoms, causes and treatment
Updated: February 2020
Calf pain can have a wide variety of causes. Our calves are made up of muscles, tendons, ligaments, nerves and blood vessels, which can all be potential sources of pain. In most cases it is caused by a cramp, but it could also be something more serious, such as thrombosis (a blood clot in the vein), for example.
Types of calf pain
Calf pain can manifest itself in various ways. It can happen at night-time or during the day; during strenuous activity or total rest. It may stay in your calf or radiate to your thigh, and you might also feel a tightening in the muscle, or experience swelling, redness, or hotness in the area. This pain can indicate a number of things, and seeing a doctor for a diagnosis should tell you what is causing the problem and what you can do to relieve it.
Causes of calf pain
Calf pain may come from the muscles — in this case, the most common culprit is a cramp. These involuntary contractions of the calf muscle, which are often caused by dehydration, can occur at rest or on exertion, including when walking or running. It could also be a simple case of muscle soreness or stiffness (a general feeling of tightness that often follows intense exercise), or another problem such as a contracture (a progressive hardening of the muscles), or a pull or strain (characterised by a stabbing pain).
Calf pain can also be caused by a nerve problem, most commonly sciatica. In this case, your pain is the result of a herniated (‘slipped’) disc pressing on the sciatic nerve, which causes a pain that radiates down to your calf.
Finally, calf pain may be due to problem with the veins or arteries, such as arteritis (an inflamed artery), which is often the case if it hurts when you walk and your feet are cold, or thrombosis (a blood clot in the vein).
Is it deep vein thrombosis?
Deep vein thrombosis (DVT) is caused by a blood clot inside the vein, and is characterised by pain in your calf that becomes more painful when touched, and is accompanied by swelling, redness and a feeling of heat in the area. The pain often affects only one leg. Deep vein thrombosis can be fatal as it could lead to a pulmonary embolism (when the clot moves to your lungs), and it therefore requires urgent medical treatment.
Treating calf pain
The treatment for calf pain depends on its cause. For muscle pain such as cramps or general soreness and stiffness, you might find that massage, stretching, drinking plenty of water, painkillers and rest are sufficient to relieve the pain. If the pain is due to a nerve problem, addressing this underlying cause – by treating your slipped disc, for example – will help to relieve the pain. Finally, for pain caused by artery and vein problems such as phlebitis (an inflamed vein) or thrombosis, you might be prescribed support stockings, anti-inflammatory drugs or anticoagulants.
There are also some other solutions that effectively reduce or relieve certain types of muscle pain using a combination of soothing heat and Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation (TENS) – this is a key feature of the OMRON HeatTens range of pain relievers
Horde, P. Calf pain. Retrieved from www.sante-medecine.journaldesfemmes.fr/faq/8533-douleur-du-mollet
Médisite (2018). Calf pain: 3 possible causes. Retrieved from www.medisite.fr/douleur-musculaire-douleur-au-mollet-3-causes-possibles.5028481.714192.html
Quent, M. (2015). Calf pain, how to treat it? Retrieved from www.notretemps.com/sante/mal-au-mollet-comment-decoder,i90546
Jarrige, C. (2018). Calf pain: is it a phlebitis? Retrieved from www.santemagazine.fr/sante/maladies/douleur-au-mollet-est-ce-une-phlebite-170772
Nicard, Q. (2017). Calf cramps: causes, treatments, prevention. Retrieved from www.passeportsante.net/fr/Maux/Symptomes/Fiche.aspx?doc=crampe-mollet_symptome