I watched it happen right in front me. My friend attempted an amazing dance move at a party, jumped, landed, and hopped to the closest chair.  He felt something pull in his calf, and couldn’t walk.  He was immediately tender in the calf, couldn’t put weight on his foot, and by the following morning, his calf quite swollen.

The gastrocnemius is one of two muscles in the back of the calf.  It connects the back of the knee to the achilles tendon.  The soleus is the deeper muscle in the calf that connects the leg (Tibia) to the achilles .  These two muscles allow for plantarflexion, or downward pressure of the foot.  This is key for running, jumping and walking. A muscle strain or tear happens when the muscle is pulled beyond its normal limit.

Who tears their calf ?

Calf tears are common in the 40 to 60 year old age group.  While a common injury in athletes that play soccer, and tennis, it can occur in anyone who is not well stretched out before a strenuous activity, like jumping, or in this case, dancing. 

Symptoms of a gastrocnemius tear

As with my friend above, the symptoms of a tear are the sudden onset of pain and swelling in the calf with occasional bruising down the leg.  It is usually very hard if not impossible to walk.  The achilles tendon is not tender, but the calf will be often up to the back of the knee.  If the achilles is tender, or there is a defect you can feel in the tendon, it may be something more serious like an achilles tendon tear

Examination of a gastrocnemius tear

Examination by a physician or trainer is important to confirm the diagnosis.  Usually physical examination in confirmatory.  In some cases an MRI scan will help ensure there is nothing else going on.

Treatment of a gastrocnemius tear

Gastrocnemius treatmentIn almost all cases, the treatment is conservative. The classic combination of R.I.C.E. is usually the place to start.  Rest by not walking, using crutches, and protecting the calf will help decrease pain. Icing can help with inflammation and pain.  Apply an ACE wrap for compression to help limit swelling.  Keep your leg up and elevated to also reduce swelling and pain.  I would not push activities for the first few weeks.  Give yourself time to heal.  I have never performed surgical repair of these tears.  Depending on the exact location of the tear, surgical repair may not be of much long term benefit.  

While the pain from the injury will decrease in the first few days, it may be a few weeks before the area starts to feel normal again, and up to 3 months before you feel ready for full activity.

Outcomes after gastrocnemius tear

With time, most people are able to return to full activity after a tear.  It will heal.  Give it time and be patient.  Pushing too hard too soon may cause re-injury of the healing muscle. 

This is also a good time to remember the importance of flexibility.  Stretching is important, especially as we age.  For many people, there is an inherent tightness of the calf and foot.  The same person who tears or strains the calf may have a history of plantar fasciitis.  These are closely related problems.  Before any activity like running, jumping, or in this case, dancing (!) be sure you spend a minute or two stretching your calf and quads.  It might make the difference between a fun evening and an injury you just don’t need !