The Gastrocnemius is one of the two muscles that make up the calf (the other muscle is called Soleus). It is a large powerful muscle needed for explosive acceleration such as in sprinting, and is commonly torn or strained particularly in older athletes. It usually happens when the muscle contracts hard in a fully stretched position, such as when lunging in racquet sports, or a bad foot strike when running, as well as sprinting. Inadequate warm up, muscle tightness, overuse and poor biomechanics can all contribute.
You will feel sudden pain in the calf and may even feel a tearing sensation. With minor tears you may be able to carry on your session, but severe tears can cause you to stop due to severe pain and weakness. As the muscle cools down and bleeding occurs the pain and stiffness will get worse. You may have difficulty walking. It is advised that you stop participating and start RICE treatment to limit the swelling and shorten your recovery period. You should avoid stretching the calf out.
If you think you have this injury it is well worth getting it checked out by Mr Willis-Owen. It is important to treat this early with rest, ice, compression and elevation in order to minimise the bleeding and swelling. You should avoid any aggravating activities which may prolong the problem. You may need crutches for the first few days. It generally will get better on its own if diagnosed early and treated appropriately.
Treatment involves first confirming the diagnosis and establishing the underlying cause. Physiotherapy and anti-inflammatories are required. Usually a carefully directed graduated physiotherapy program is all that is needed but recovery can be slow for severe injuries. Good early treatment and rehabilitation is required to prevent ongoing problems, and assessment of the underlying cause will help prevent recurrence.