“Dear The Golfing Doc. I felt something pull in the back of my lower leg while coming out of bunker! My calves are normally really tight. Any thoughts? Thanks.” – Will C. Seattle, WA.
Calf strains are a common injury in the lower leg. While most calf strains are acute and the specific cause is known, others are due to an accumulation of repetitive micro trauma. This can happen in athletes and non-athletes, so yes that means golfers too. This injury does tend to occur in more men than women especially between the ages of 40 and 60.
Most people think of the calf as one big muscle on the back of your lower leg, but it actually consists of two muscles. These are the gastrocnemius (known as the “gastrocs” for short) and the soleus. The gastrocs is that big superficial muscle you feel when you grab the back of your leg. It is made up of two heads or muscle bellies you tend to see in a well-defined calf. Beneath the gastrocs is the soleus. This muscle is right beneath the gastrocs, so you tend to not see or feel it. Both the gastrocs and soleus attach to the back of your heel via the Achilles tendon.
Although both muscles are similar in nature and location, both differ in primary functions. The gastrocs are more for speed, power, and explosion while the soleus is more for postural control and stability. Sports involving sprinting, jumping, running, and those requiring being on their toes such as tennis tend to have more strains than others. A calf strain is often referred to as “tennis leg.” It also tends to occur in “weekend warriors” who decide to take on an intense activity without proper conditioning.
Now, because of the various terrains on a golf course, calf strains do happen in golfers. You may miss a step, play a long course like Chambers Bay, or spend a lot of time climbing in and out of a bunker. Any of these can stress your calf and cause a strain. Sometimes one bad swing or an accumulation of bad swings can cause a strain.
There are three severities of calf strains. In a Grade 1 calf strain, you may experience some twinges of pain in the back of the leg. You can normally continue your activity but you will have tightness or stiffness in the calf for about 2 to 7 days. In a Grade 2 calf strain, the pain is more sharp and noticeable when walking. Mild to moderate bruising and swelling are present. The tightness and aching can last for a couple of weeks.
In a Grade 3 strain, someone will usually say it feels like someone hit them in the back of the leg. They may also report a “pop.” The pain is immediate and sudden with a lot of bruising and swelling. In the most severe case, there is a complete rupture and the muscle belly will bunch up.
While most minor calf strains will resolve on their own or with treatment, if you think you have a calf strain, it is recommended you consult your physician for a proper evaluation as it may be another condition.
Here are a few exercises to keep your calves strong and healthy. If you have any discomfort or pain during any of these exercises, stop immediately and consult your physician.
Dr.Harry Sese is the Clinical Director at the Washington Golf Performance Institute in Bellevue, WA.