Gastrocnemius – Pain & Trigger Points

The gastrocnemius is the muscle of the calf thanks to whom it gets its shape. In many people it causes pain in the calf, the hollow of the knee or in the footbed. The reasons for this are often tensions and trigger points.

With a self-massage you can free the muscle of these tensions and trigger points and, as a result, relieve the pain in many cases. Provided, of course, that it is caused by the muscle.

On this page you will learn about the technique of self-massage, where this muscle is located, which functions it has, how you can feel it and which situations can lead to problems in the muscle.

1. Pain Patterns & Symptoms

Trigger points in the gastrocnemius muscle can lead to pain in different areas, depending on their location.

The zones in the images which display a dark red, indicate the main spots of pain. The X represent the approximate location of the respective trigger point.

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1.1 Symptoms

In addition to the pains illustrated above, trigger points often lead to (nightly) calf cramps.

2. Origin & Insertion

The muscle can be divided into two muscle bellies, which run from your lateral and medial femur/thigh bone and the capsule of the knee joint down to the calcaneus/heel bone.

In the lower portion, the two bellies and the tendon of the soleus join and form the Achilles tendon, which inserts onto the calcaneus or heel bone.

In simple terms, the gastrocnemius runs down from your thigh to your heel.

3. Function

The functions of the gastrocnemius consist overall in the stabilization of the knee joint, the extension of the ankle joint, as well as in the control of the upright posture.

What is more, the muscle is able to perform a supination of the ankle joint and slight flexion in the knee joint – although these are not its main functions.

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Supination

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Flexion

Its main functions consist in

Stabilization of the knee joint

  • Prevents the lower leg from moving too far forward in relation to the thigh.

Flexion of the ankle joint

  • Especially with powerful movements – jumping, running, going uphill, climbing stairs -.

Control of the upright posture

  • Contracts when you bend forward.

4. Gastrocnemius – Trigger Point Activation

Mechanical overload, cool air and permanent approach/shortening are the most important factors here.

4.1 Mechanical overload:

As mentioned above, the muscle plays a particularly important role as soon as a powerful and fast extension of the ankle joint is required.

The following activities might lead to tensions and trigger points in the gastrocnemius, especially in condition of fatigue, with insufficient fitness level or too short regeneration phases.

  • Basketball
  • Volleyball
  • Long stair climbing
  • Mountaineering
  • Mountain runs
  • Long barefoot walks in the sand or on the beach

4.2 Cool air

Cool air and wind can cause trigger points in the muscle when directly exposed to (for example wearing shorts & skirts). This applies especially to untrained persons or a muscle that is already tired.

4.3 Permanent approach

A permanent approach or shortening of a muscle is always a factor that can contribute to trigger point activation.

In this case, mainly positions in which the knees are bent and the hocks are stretched can cause problems.

  • Driving a car
  • Sitting on a chair with the ankle stretched (feet under the chair and upper surface of the feet on the floor)

5. Palpation

You will be able to feel this muscle with ease, because it lies close to the skin and can be grasped very well.

  • I recommend sitting on the floor with the respective knee in position of flexion and with the sole of the respective foot on the ground.
  • As a result, the fibers of the muscle are approached/shortened and can be grasped very well.
  • Press with your thumb into the middle of your lower leg and place your fingers on its outside.
  • Now you can feel the lateral belly of the gastrocnemius.
  • For the inner part, use the other hand and grasp the inside of the lower leg with your fingers.
  • Also try to feel where the two bellies meet and merge into the Achilles tendon.

6. Self-massage of the Gastrocnemius

For the self-massage of the gastrocnemius, it would be best if you use a foam roller. This is an easy and effective way to work the muscle.

Alternatively, you can massage it with your thumbs. This makes sense if you want to get rid of very stubborn trigger points or if you want to penetrate deep into the tissue.

But now we start the massage with the foam roller:

Sit on the floor and place your calf on the roll. The upper half of the muscle or lower leg is the area of interest when it comes to the massage, because this is where the most intensive tensions and trigger points are located (see muscle picture).

Support yourself with your hands, lift your buttocks slightly and then roll slowly over the muscle. As soon as you hit a painful point, stay in that area and roll over it very slowly a few times.

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Normal massage pressure.

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Increased massage pressure.

Go on working this way the middle, the medial and the lateral side of your lower leg, all the way up to the hollow of your knee. Be careful not to omit any area during your examination.

Note I: At the beginning, keep the duration and pressure of the massage low and pay attention to the reactions of your body. Little by little you may increase these two variables and adapt them to your personal needs.

Note II: Also in the middle and the lower compartment of the lower leg there are tensions and trigger points. However, these already are situated in the soleus.

References

  • Calais-German, Blandine. Anatomy of Movement. Seattle: Eastland Press, 1993. Print
  • Davies, Clair, and Davies, Amber. The Trigger Point Workbook: Your Self-Treatment Guide For Pain Relief. Oakland: New Harbinger Publications, Inc., Print
  • Simons, David G., Lois S. Simons, and Janet G. Travell. Travell & Simons’ Myofascial Pain and Dysfunction: The Trigger Point Manual. The Lower Extremities. Baltimore, MD: Williams & Wilkins, 1993. Print.
  • Schünke, Michael., Schulte, Erik, and Schumacher, Udo. Prometheus: Lernatlas der Anatomie. Stuttgart/New York: Georg Thieme Verlag, 2007. Print