What Causes a Swollen Calf?
In most cases a swollen calf is the result of an injury, but not always. There are quite a few conditions that can cause swelling in the gastrocnemius, the largest portion of muscle behind the tibia and fibula. In order to pursue the correct form of treatment and prevent the possible development of complications or long term injury it is important to determine the true cause behind the condition. Let’s take a look at the most common causes behind a swollen calf.
A leg injury is one of the easier causes to pin-point because of the symptoms that crop up directly after the injury occurs. A fall, a blow to the leg, or any other incident which causes direct force to the area can cause a fracture in one of the nearby bones. There are different types of fractures and not all of them are obvious such as a compound or complete fracture of the bone. The most common symptom of a fracture is pain in the general area. It could be constant and dull or it could be a sharp pain that hits when the leg is moved. Bruising and tenderness in the area is also very common, as is tenderness and numbness. Swelling in the surrounding muscle is very common and may be accompanied by redness and warmth.
Even if the breakage is so severe that the leg appears to be deformed, an x-ray is still used to confirm not only the break itself but the location and severity of the fracture. Treatment varies depending on the type of break. For instance, a complete fracture may require the bones to be “set” and placed in a cast, while a hairline fracture may be left to heal with a simple compression band, elevation, and plenty of rest.
Another common cause of a swollen calf is a calf sprain. This usually happens when the foot suddenly bends upward causing the gastrocnemius muscle to stretch further than it is meant to. At the time of the injury, there may not be any immediate symptoms other than pain, although some people have said that a pop or tearing sound can sometimes be heard as the muscle literally tears away from the tendon. Similar to a fracture, swelling, redness, bruising, and warmth in the area of the calf are the most prominent symptoms. Movement may become limited or even impossible if the muscle is completely torn. The most obvious symptom is, of course, pain in the calf that typically occurs with movement, although it may be present if the tear is severe.
Most sprained muscles can heal of their own accord with a little compression and rest. If movement is limited or impossible, a doctor should be seen immediately to determine if a full tear has occurred. If so, surgery may be required to reattach the muscle.
Deep Vein Thrombosis (DVT)
Deep vein thrombosis is a little less common but should still be considered when dealing with a swollen calf. DVT is the result of a blood clot that lodges in a deep vein. It most commonly affects the legs which is why many physicians will suspect this condition if the patient’s leg becomes swollen without any obvious cause. DVT can occur without any symptoms however it is often accompanied by severe pain, swelling, reddened skin, warmth, and engorgement of the veins in the calf. This is a potentially life-threatening condition because there is the risk that the blood clot can dislodge from the vein and travel to the lungs. A physician can usually make a diagnosis by asking a series of questions and performing a physical exam of the affected leg. Warfarin, an anti-coagulation component, can be taken orally to thin the blood and may be used in conjunction with compression stockings.
A swollen calf that is accompanied by minor pain is usually not a serious issue. In most cases the swelling can be treated using an ice pack and elevating the leg. Resting the muscle is the key to recovery. It may be necessary to see a doctor should the swelling be accompanied by severe pain.