The Achilles tendon connects the calf muscle to the back of the heel. Injuries to the Achilles tendon are common, as it is in constant use during walking and running. These injuries, known as Achilles tendinitis, are usually the result of overuse damage and minor tears that have accumulated over years. Your risk of developing Achilles tendinitis increases with age and activity level. Many athletes develop Achilles tendinitis. The tendon may be injured several inches away from where it attaches to the foot or at the point of attachment. An injury at the point of attachment is called Achilles enthesopathy. We recommend a combination of treatments over a period of months that may include wearing supportive shoes or orthotic devices, performing stretching exercises, and icing the affected area. If these treatments are not effective, or if the tendon is completely torn, we may recommend surgery.
Achilles tendinitis is usually caused by straining the Achilles tendon through intense activity or a sudden increase in exercise. Individuals who play basketball often develop Achilles tendinitis as a result of pivoting, jumping, and running. These repetitive movements put pressure on the tendon and can gradually wear it down over time. Increasing the intensity of your workouts may also lead to the development of Achilles tendinitis. This is commonly seen in long distance runners who do quite a bit of uphill running. Similarly, if you start exercising more frequently you may also develop the condition due to overuse of the tendon. Not stretching properly before exercise can also make the tendon more prone to injury. Achilles tendinitis is also common in individuals whose feet have a flattened arch, as this places more stress on the tendon. The condition can also be triggered by arthritis, as joint pain can cause one to compensate by putting more pressure on the Achilles tendon.
Morning pain is a hallmark symptom because the achilles tendon must tolerate full range of movement including stretch immediately on rising in the morning. Symptoms are typically localized to the tendon and immediate surrounding area. Swelling and pain at the attachment are less common. The tendon can appear to have subtle changes in outline, becoming thicker in the A-P and M-L planes. With people who have a tendinopathy of the achilles tendon that has a sensitive zone, combined with intratendinous swelling, that moves along with the tendon and of which sensitivity increases or decreases when the tendon is put under pressure, there will be a high predictive value that in this situation there is a case of tendinosis.
To confirm the diagnosis and consider what might be causing the problem, it?s important to see your doctor or a physiotherapist. Methods used to make a diagnosis may include, medical history, including your exercise habits and footwear, physical examination, especially examining for thickness and tenderness of the Achilles tendon, tests that may include an x-ray of the foot, ultrasound and occasionally blood tests (to test for an inflammatory condition), and an MRI scan of the tendon.
Initial treatment consists of medication and ice to relieve the pain, stretching and strengthening exercises, and modification of the activity that initially caused the problem. These all can be carried out at home, although referral to a physical therapist or athletic trainer for further evaluation and treatment may be helpful. Occasionally a walking boot or cast may be recommended to immobilize the tendon, allowing the inflammation to settle down. For less severe cases or after immobilization, a heel lift may be prescribed to reduce stress to the tendon. This may be followed by an elastic bandage wrap of the ankle and Achilles tendon. Orthotics (arch supports) may be prescribed or recommended by your physician. Surgery to remove the inflamed tendon lining or degenerated tendon tissue is rarely necessary and has shown less than predictable results.
Many people don't realize that Achilles tendon surgery can be very traumatic to your body. The type of trauma you experience after surgery can be compared to what you go through when you first injured your Achilles tendon. During the first 24 to 72 hours after the surgery your ankle will be tender, swollen and very painful. Your leg will be weak and unstable making it impossible for you to put weight on your leg without some kind of help. This is why your doctor or surgeon will have you outfitted for a cast, ankle brace and/or crutches before the procedure. When you are relying on a cast/brace and crutches your Achilles tendon is less likely to be as active as it once was. This is usually why atrophy (loss) of your lower leg muscles (specifically your calf muscle) happens. In general, more than 80%* of people who undergo surgery for an injured Achilles Tendon are able to return to their active lifestyle. In order to avoid re-injury, it is important to commit to a regular conservative therapy routine.
Suggestions to reduce your risk of Achilles tendonitis include, incorporate stretching into your warm-up and cool-down routines, maintain an adequate level of fitness for your sport, avoid dramatic increases in sports training, if you experience pain in your Achilles tendon, rest the area. Trying to ?work through? the pain will only make your injury worse, wear good quality supportive shoes appropriate to your sport. If there is foot deformity or flattening, obtain orthoses, avoid wearing high heels on a regular basis. Maintaining your foot in a ?tiptoe? position shortens your calf muscles and reduces the flexibility of your Achilles tendon. An inflexible Achilles tendon is more susceptible to injury, maintain a normal healthy weight.