Tight Calf Muscle (Gastroc Equinus)
Many people are surprised when they hear that their foot or ankle pain is can be caused by a tight calf muscle. Unfortunately, a LOT of people have calf muscles that are too tight, and this can be attributed to our modern lifestyles. Sitting in chairs for long periods of time, wearing shoes with an elevated heel, sleeping in beds, and simply not being as active as our ancient ancestors are just a few things that can lead to calf muscle tightness. A tight calf muscle causes force imbalances in our feet, and our feet make compensations that can lead to painful disorders. Fortunately, a calf muscle tightness can be improved with diligent, daily stretching, which can often improve the symptoms that it was causing.
Some great info and illustrations from Foot Education:
Equinus contractures are the inability to bring the foot up to a neutral position (a right angle to the lower leg) due to either tightness of the muscles and/or tendons in the calf, scarring of the ankle joint capsule and other restraining structures, or a bone spur at the front of the ankle that restricts normal ankle motion. It is named after horses (equine) who essentially walk “on their toes.”
A gastrocnemius equinus contracture (Figure 1) occurs when tightness in the outer calf muscle (gastrocnemius) leads to limited ankle dorsiflexion (motion through the ankle joint itself). To compensate for this tightness and allow the foot to settle on the ground, compensatory motion will often occur in the joint in front of the ankle, the transverse tarsal joint, which is made up of the talonavicular joint and the calcaneal-cuboid joints (Figure 2). The hallmark of a gastrocnemius equinus contracture is that it will correct (i.e ankle motion will become full) when the knee is bent because the pressure is taken off the gastrocnemius muscle, since it attaches above the knee joint.
Figure 1: Limited motion through the ankle joint
Figure 2: Compensatory motion through the joints in front of the ankle joint
If you have this problem, you will benefit from focused calf stretching. The “runner’s stretch” (the one where you put your hand against the wall and your foot out behind you) does not work. Period. More specifically, the foot will evert and all you’ll accomplish is to crank the foot into an unnatural position (likely the one in Figure 2, above). For calf stretching that actually works, see:
Academic Paper on Isolated Gastrocnemius Tightness (Tight calf muscle) by DiGiovanni, et al, 2002