Achilles Tendonitis is an inflammation of the Achilles Tendon. This tendon attaches the muscles in the calf of the leg to the back of our heels. The Achilles Tendon is a long and thick tendon, which moves our foot down, so that the toes point to the ground (plantar flexion). This tendon can become inflamed due to the following causes. Over utilizing it, such as too much running, especially up or down hill. Trauma, such as a kick to the tendon. Shoe or boot pressure, especially at its attachment to the heel, or just above it. There are over 250,000 injuries to the Achilles Tendon annually. In fact, more Than 10% of all running injuries are to the Achilles tendon. Tendonitis may be classified as either acute or chronic. Acute Achilles Tendonitis comes on quickly, usually after a specific activity or event. It is characterized by an overstretching or tearing of some of the small fibers of the tendon, and causes pain or tenderness when walking or running. It can occur at the insertion (near the attachment to the heel bone, or further up the leg, about 4 or 5 inches above the heel. Acute tendonitis can also follow a specific injury, such as a kick to the tendon while playing soccer. Chronic Achilles Tendonitis develops gradually over time. Many times, you can feel an obvious thickening of the tendon that may be tender when squeezed, due to long standing scarring of the tendon. Pain is also present when walking or during other forms of activity, and feels better at rest.
Achilles tendonitis is an overuse injury. Too much too soon is the common cause of overuse injuries, however other factors can contribute to developing the condition. An increase in activity, either distance, speed or a sudden change to running up hills. As a rule of thumb distance runners should increase their mileage by no more than 10% per week. A change of footwear or training surface for example suddenly running on soft sand can cause the heel to drop lower than normal making the tendon stretch further than it is used to. Weak calf muscles can tighten or go into partial spasm which again increases the strain on the achilles tendon by shortening the muscle. Running up hills – the achilles tendon has to stretch more than normal on every stride. This is fine for a while but will mean the tendon will fatigue sooner than normal. Overpronation or feet which roll in when running can place an increased strain on the achilles tendon. As the foot rolls in (flattens) the lower leg also rotates inwards which places twisting stresses on the tendon. Wearing high heels constantly shortens the tendon and calf muscles. When exercising in flat running shoes, the tendon is stretched beyond its normal range which places an abnormal strain on the tendon.
The pain associated with Achilles tendonitis can come on gradually or be caused by some type of leg or foot trauma. The pain can be a shooting, burning, or a dull ache. You can experience the pain at either the insertion point on the back of the heel or upwards on the Achilles tendon within a few inches. Swelling is also common along the area with the pain. The onset of discomfort at the insertion can cause a bump to occur called a Haglund’s deformities or Pump bump. This can be inflammation in the bursa sac that surrounds the insertion of the Achilles tendon, scar tissue from continuous tares of the tendon, or even some calcium buildup. In this situation the wearing of closed back shoes could irritate the bump. In the event of a rupture, which is rare, the foot will not be able to go through the final stage of push off causing instability. Finally, you may experience discomfort, even cramping in the calf muscle.
The doctor will perform a physical exam. The doctor will look for tenderness along the tendon and pain in the area of the tendon when you stand on your toes. X-rays can help diagnose bone problems. An MRI scan may be done if your doctor is thinking about surgery or is worried about the tear in the Achilles tendon.
In most cases, nonsurgical treatment options will provide pain relief, although it may take a few months for symptoms to completely subside. Even with early treatment, the pain may last longer than 3 months. If you have had pain for several months before seeking treatment, it may take 6 months before treatment methods take effect. The first step in reducing pain is to decrease or even stop the activities that make the pain worse. If you regularly do high-impact exercises (such as running), switching to low-impact activities will put less stress on the Achilles tendon. Cross-training activities such as biking, elliptical exercise, and swimming are low-impact options to help you stay active. Placing ice on the most painful area of the Achilles tendon is helpful and can be done as needed throughout the day. This can be done for up to 20 minutes and should be stopped earlier if the skin becomes numb. A foam cup filled with water and then frozen creates a simple, reusable ice pack. After the water has frozen in the cup, tear off the rim of the cup. Then rub the ice on the Achilles tendon. With repeated use, a groove that fits the Achilles tendon will appear, creating a “custom-fit” ice pack. Drugs such as ibuprofen and naproxen reduce pain and swelling. They do not, however, reduce the thickening of the degenerated tendon. Using the medication for more than 1 month should be reviewed with your primary care doctor. The following exercise can help to strengthen the calf muscles and reduce stress on the Achilles tendon. Lean forward against a wall with one knee straight and the heel on the ground. Place the other leg in front, with the knee bent. To stretch the calf muscles and the heel cord, push your hips toward the wall in a controlled fashion. Hold the position for 10 seconds and relax. Repeat this exercise 20 times for each foot. A strong pull in the calf should be felt during the stretch. Physical therapy is very helpful in treating Achilles tendinitis. It has proven to work better for noninsertional tendinitis than for insertional tendinitis. Eccentric strengthening is defined as contracting (tightening) a muscle while it is getting longer. Eccentric strengthening exercises can cause damage to the Achilles tendon if they are not done correctly. At first, they should be performed under the supervision of a physical therapist. Once mastered with a therapist, the exercises can then be done at home. These exercises may cause some discomfort, however, it should not be unbearable. Stand at the edge of a stair, or a raised platform that is stable, with just the front half of your foot on the stair. This position will allow your heel to move up and down without hitting the stair. Care must be taken to ensure that you are balanced correctly to prevent falling and injury. Be sure to hold onto a railing to help you balance. Lift your heels off the ground then slowly lower your heels to the lowest point possible. Repeat this step 20 times. This exercise should be done in a slow, controlled fashion. Rapid movement can create the risk of damage to the tendon. As the pain improves, you can increase the difficulty level of the exercise by holding a small weight in each hand. This exercise is performed similarly to the bilateral heel drop, except that all your weight is focused on one leg. This should be done only after the bilateral heel drop has been mastered. Cortisone, a type of steroid, is a powerful anti-inflammatory medication. Cortisone injections into the Achilles tendon are rarely recommended because they can cause the tendon to rupture (tear).
Surgery for an acute Achilles tendon tear is seemingly straightforward. The ends of the torn tendon are surgically exposed and sutures are used to tie the ends together. The sutures used to tie together the torn tendon ends are thick and strong, and are woven into the Achilles both above and below the tear. While the concepts of surgery are straightforward, the execution is more complex. Care must be taken to ensure the tendon is repaired with the proper tension — not too tight or too loose. The skin must be taken care of, as excessive handling of the soft tissues can cause severe problems including infection and skin necrosis. Nerves are located just adjacent to the tendon, and must be protected to prevent nerve injury. If surgery is decided upon, it is usually performed within days or weeks of the injury. The idea is to perform the repair before scar tissue has formed, which would make the repair more difficult. Some surgeons may recommend delaying surgery a few days from the initial injury to allow swelling to subside before proceeding with the repair.
There are several things you can do to reduce the risk of Achilles tendinitis, warm up every time before you exercise or play a sport. Switch up your exercises. Slowly increase the length and intensity of your workouts. Keep your muscles active and stay in shape all year-round. When you see symptoms of Achilles tendinitis, stop whatever activity you are doing and rest.