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Gastrocnemius Muscle: Knee and Foot Pain

The gastrocnemius is the large muscle of the calf and gives the lower leg its shape. The muscle contributes to pain in the arch of the foot,  pain in the back of the knee, and painful cramping in the calf and foot.

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Table of Contents

    Where Is The Gastrocnemius Muscle?

    Image showing the gastrocnemius muscle origin and inserstion.

    The gastrocnemius attaches to the thigh bone (femur) just above the back of the knee, runs down the back of the leg, joining into the Achilles tendon, which continues down to connect to the heel (calcaneus).

    Interesting Facts:

    • Unresolved pain in the high arch of the foot is the primary symptom of gastroc dysfunction.
    • Trigger points and a short tight gastroc muscle is a prime source of lower leg cramps or ‘Charley horses.’
    • Due to extreme cold or illness, body chills will cause the gastroc to shorten and tighten, causing lower leg pain and muscle cramps.
    • The gastroc is the muscle that gives the calf its shape.

    What Does The Gastrocnemius Muscle Do?

    Image demonstrating plantarflexion of the foot
      • The gastroc bends the ankle down so you can point your toes (plantarflexion)
      • Stabilizes the ankle and lower leg so you can stand on your toes
      • Assists with bending the knee (flexion of the knee)

    For detailed anatomy information: Gastrocnemius Muscle Anatomy

    Gastrocnemius Pain Symptoms

    Image of gastrocnemius referred pain pattern

    Do not overlook the gastrocnemius if you are experiencing pain in the foot's arch, as this is often the first symptom of problems with the gastroc muscle. Another common symptom is the inability to straighten and lock the knee fully.

    Two different trigger points in the muscle will refer pain to the ankle, one TrP referring to the outside of the ankle, the other to the inside of the ankle.

    If a trigger point forms in the middle of the gastroc, the muscle becomes painful and tends to cramp.

    Signs and symptoms include:

    • Pain in the arch of the foot
    • Pain toward the outside of the back of the knee
    • Pain toward  the inside of the back of the knee
    • Pain going down the inside of the lower leg
    • Pain in the outside or inside of the ankle
    • Cramps in the calf
    • Occasionally pain on the outside of the heel

    Other muscles, including the gastrocnemius, contribute to these conditions

    Muscles With Similar Pain Patterns

    Tibialis Posterior Muscle

    Soleus Muscle

    Recommended Muscle Pain Products

    Doctors and physical therapists often recommend using a TENS at home to relax muscles and ease the pain. The Belifu TENS Unit Muscle Stimulator is highly recommended and an excellent choice for treating upper and lower leg pain.

    Sombra Warm Therapy Gel is recommended for relaxing muscles and relieving pain. It warms without the burning heat of other gels. An excellent choice for pain caused by trigger points, muscle/joint over-use and stiffness, and arthritis. If you have reoccurring leg or foot cramps, you should keep Somba on hand; it provides almost instant relief. (Not sold in stores)

    What Causes Gastrocnemis Pain?

    Any activity that keeps the toes pointed or requires standing on the ball of the foot for prolonged times negatively affects the gastrocnemius muscle. Such activities keep the muscle in a lengthy stretch leading to soreness, trigger point development, and possible muscle strains.

      • Climbing and walking uphill and on inclines
      • Bike riding
      • Standing and leaning forward for extended periods of time
      • Swimming keeping toes pointed to kick
      • Sitting in chairs or benches that put pressure on the back of the thigh
      • Having the leg immobilized with a cast or brace
      • Wearing high heels

    How To Avoid Development of Trigger Points In The Gastroc Muscle

      • Standing in one place for long periods puts strain on all the lower leg and foot muscles. To help ease muscle stress, shift your weight from foot to foot at your normal walking rhythm. Take turns standing on one leg, flex, and straighten your ankle on the other leg several times.
      • Ease into new fitness routines, especially stair climbing, elliptical machines, hiking, and swimming. To avoid pain, don't overdo it.
      • If you wear high heels for hours each day, you will develop foot, knee, and hip pain. Alternate to flats when possible.
      • If sitting in a hard-edged chair like a folding chair, or a bench, consider using a pillow or gel cushion to keep pressure off the back of the legs and knees.

    Gastrocnemius Trigger Point Treatment

    Image of gastrocnemius muscle trigger points

    The gastrocnemius can have several trigger points in the muscle. This does not mean all trigger points are active and causing symptoms, but you will need to check for and treat any causing symptoms and pain.

    Gastrocnemius trigger points are easy to self-treat. The Trigger Point Therapy Workbook is an excellent resource for learning how to find and treat trigger points in the gastroc and other muscles in the body. It will also advise what other muscles need to be examined with the gastrocnemius.

    The book recommends using one of these tools for treatment. The most versatile of the suggested tools is the Thera Cane Massager. The cane can be used on other muscles, including those hard to reach, like the muscles of the back and bottom of the feet.

    The Knobbler is another tool that works well on the gastroc muscle. The Knobbler applies precise pressure to a trigger point and can be used on other muscles that you can easily reach.

    The last tool used on the gastroc muscle is a massage ball. You place the ball on a stack of thick books on the floor. Then, you lie on the floor with your lower leg on the ball, supporting your body with your arms, and roll the ball up and down the leg. This method works very well, but you must have the arm strength to support your body weight and be able to get down on the floor.

    If you are unsure about self-treatment, search for a massage therapist, chiropractor, or physical therapist trained in trigger point therapy. They can show you how to find and treat specific TrPs.

    Gastroc trigger points need several 1-2 minute treatments spread throughout the day. Continue the therapy until the area does not produce pain or symptoms when pressure is applied.

    How Long Before I Feel A Reduction In Pain?

    Depending on the trigger point, you may feel relief in just a few treatments. Many people report pain and cramping reduced after a day of several treatments.

    Other muscles that should be considered and examined:

    Satellite trigger points associated with the gastrocnemius muscle:

    If you find TrPs in the gastrocnemius, check these muscles for additional trigger points:

    Products We Use and Recommend For Low Leg Muscle Pain

    The Roxofit Calf Support/Shin Splint provides support and warmth to the lower leg muscles. This brace is recommended for Achilles tendon strains, sprains, and also strains, sprains, and overuse injuries of the lower leg muscles. An excellent choice for compression and support of the lower leg muscles. If you suspect or have ever been diagnosed with blood clots, consult your doctor before using this brace.


    Sore shins or calves? Feel as if shin splints are coming on? The ProStretch Calf Stretcher & Foot Rocker can help! The stretcher/rocker stretches and helps relax most of the muscles in the lower leg and foot. Physical therapists use them to treat sore shins and calves as well as foot pain and plantar fasciitis.

    Lower Leg Compression Sleeves are used by many athletes. Compression sleeves provide compression, support, and warmth without adding bulk to the lower leg muscles. Athletic trainers recommend sleeves for shin splint, strained calf muscles, and overuse injuries of the lower leg muscles. Sleeves are also great as a preventative measure against shin splints and tired sore calf muscles after sports activities. Compression sleeves are also shown to reduce recovery time after strenuous activities and injury.

    Note: If you suspect or have ever been diagnosed with blood clots, consult your doctor before using compression sleeves or braces.

    Gastrocnemius muscle pain and symptoms can be similar to, contribute to, and be affected by these medical diagnoses:

      • Leg cramping at night
      • Tennis leg
      • Post-exercise soreness
      • Posterior compartment syndrome
      • Buckling knee syndrome
      • Dislocation/Subluxation of the knee
      • Torn lateral meniscus
      • Peripheral vascular disease (PVD)
      • Thrombophlebitis
    • Deep vein thrombosis (DVT)
    • Superficial vascular thrombosis (SVT)
    • Varicose veins
    • Rupture or torn Gastrocnemius
    • Muscle sprain/strain of the calf
    • Baker’s cyst
    • Ruptured Achilles’ tendon
    • Achilles tendinitis
    • Plantar fasciitis