During the pandemic, as a population, we all have spent way more time sitting than ever before. Tight calves have never been so common. When we are sitting our calf muscles are allowed to be in a shortened position and particularly because of the flexed position of our knees.
The largest calf muscle, called the gastrocs (the one with the most definition) rests on the knee when our legs are crossed. This causes the muscle to be in a shortened position. The less obvious calf muscle, the soleus, which is deeper beneath the gastrocs begins below the knee, so it is not susceptible to shortening due to the knee position in sitting, but it is susceptible (as are the gastrocs) to shortening due to the ankle position in sitting if the foot is held in a slightly flexed position which is inevitable if our heels are positioned slightly further forward than our knees.
We don't realize it but tight calves can cause some fairly common conditions.
- When the calves are tight, the arrangement of the ankle bone changes and can lead to fallen arches and plantar fasciitis. The plantar fascia, a strip of connective tissue that runs along the sole of the foot from the heel to the ball of the foot, and is actually connected to the Achilles tendon. The Achilles tendon is how the calf muscles attach to the heel. This altered positioning and movement of the ankle bones often also gives rise to Achilles tendonitis.
- Tight calves also can cause cramping of the calves. Often more noticeable at night when you are sleeping due to the weight of the blankets pushing down on the foot. This position puts the calves in a shortened position all night and that can lead to cramping.
- Tight calves also mean the ankle may become stiff because it is no longer moving through its full intended range of motion. The opposite muscle to the calf that pulls the foot up may now have to work harder to function at its optimum resulting in shin splints, especially with running.
- Sometimes, a restriction in the ankle joint may be the cause of tight calves or the limiting factor in easing tight calves.
The body is a biomechanically, interrelated system meaning everything is connected. When the mechanics at the ankles alters because of tight calves, the arches in the feet fall and the shin bone can rotate internally to compensate and in many individuals, the thigh bone can rotate externally to compensate for the change in the position of the shin. This creates excessive torsion on the knee cap often resulting in knee-cap pain (patella-femoral) syndrome and strain. The changed position of the thigh bone can also result in restricted internal rotation of the hip, bursitis in the hip, and early osteoarthritis. Moreover, the change in position of the thigh bone and the muscle tightness that ensues over time can change the position, alignment, and symmetry of the pelvis eventually resulting in low back pain.
How do you know if you have tight calves? While sitting in a chair, if you put your leg out straight and try and bring your toes towards you, you should be able to easily bend the foot so the toes are pointing towards you.
Potential preventions and solutions:
- To properly stretch the claves, hold the stretch for a minute or longer and not stretch into pain.
- Getting up from your workplace for a walk every hour is a good idea for stretching the calves.
- We have found myofascial release using acupuncture balls very helpful in releasing and lengthening the calf muscles when combined with a stretching routine.
- Limit time wearing high heels. High heels will have both your calf muscles in the shortened position whether you are sitting, standing, or walking.
- If your foot is not flat on the ground while seated, you can place a yoga block or book under your feet.
- Ergonomic-sit-stand workstations are becoming more popular and this will help reduce the risk of tight calves.
If you've tried these suggestions and still have pain that you believe may be related to tight calves, it is time for you to come in and see us. The Backhealer has over 15 years of clinical experience.