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Gastrocnemius: A Cramp in the Calf

At some point, patients with posterior leg cramping and pain will seek your services. A multitude of factors produce these symptoms, from dehydration, overuse, poor conditioning, muscle fatique, to low levels of potassium, sodium and or carbohydrates.

Let’s focus on the gastrocnemius muscle, reviewing key points, showing its four myofascial trigger point locations, pain referral patterns and treatment techniques. If the gastrocnemius muscle is the cause of the pain and not properly treated, the pain will become more persistent and intense.

 

Highlights

Gastrocnemius is a two-headed muscle that crosses two joints, the knee and ankle. The medial head is slightly larger and longer than the lateral head. The two heads of the gastrocnemius merge to form the inferolateral and inferomedial boundaries of the popliteal fossa. The gastrocnemius, along with soleus, and plantaris comprise the superficial group of muscles in the posterior compartment of the leg. (Image 1) A three headed calf muscle formed by the two-headed gastrocnemius and soleus. This large muscle merges into the calcaneal tendon or achilles tendon. It plantar flexes the ankle joint, raising the heel off the ground against body weight, as when a person is walking or balancing on their toes.

posterior compartmentImage 1Symptoms

Complaints from myofascial trigger points in the gastrocnemius muscle include: night cramps and might be activated by climbing up steps, steep slopes, running uphill or riding a bicycle with the seat is adjusted too low. Patients with active trigger points may complain of pain while walking in the soft sand of a beach or on a slanted surface. Any of these activities coupled with cold air temperature, might contribute to the development of trigger points in the gastrocnemius. Other factors that might promote the development of trigger points include having the ankle in a cast, wearing clothing that restricts circulation or reclining chairs that reduce blood flow.

Educate

While you may know the location of trigger points and their specific pain referral patterns, your patients do not and they will respect the professional level of patient education you are providing. For example, in photo 2, “X” indicates the common location of trigger points within a muscle. When a trigger point is activated during treatment, it will produce referred phenomena (pain, tingling, pressure, etc) which is shown in red. (Image 2) Solid red areas indicate an essential pain zone or area of pain experienced by nearly every patient that had that trigger point activated. The red dots indicate spillover pain zones. These are areas of pain experienced by some, but not all, patients outside of the essential pain zones.

referred phenomenaImage 2Locations and Patterns

The most common trigger point (TrP ) in the gastrocnemius is TrP 1. It is located just distal to the posterior knee, near the medial border of the medial head. It has a strong referral pattern to the ipsilateral instep with a spillover pattern that extends from the distal posterior thigh, along the medial aspect of the calf to the medial maleolus. The next most common trigger point is TrP 2, which is located slightly more distally then TrP1, in the lateral head and refers mostly in a regional pattern near the trigger point. (Image 3) TrPs 3 and 4 are located just distal to the knee and also refer very regional patterns near the location of the trigger point.

Treatment

There are numerous techniques for releasing myofascial trigger points. The patient must always be comfortable with your treatment pressure, so communicate before, during and after the session. If during a treatment session, your patient is reflexively contracting muscles, pulling away, holding their breath or cinching their teeth because the therapy hurts, then your pressure should be released immediately. Assume the treatment pressure was too much, discontinue treating the sensitive area and return a few minutes later with less pressure.

TrP1

 

The gastrocnemius can be a “real” cramp in the calf. It can produce a great deal of pain and dysfunction for your patients. Educate your patients of the contributing causes and symptoms of gastrocnemius trigger points.

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