Achilles tendinitis is an irritation/inflammation in the achilles tendon, which attaches to the back of the heel. It is often a result of overuse and occurs frequently in runners who have altered their training suddenly, either with regard to duration or intensity. This injury is also prevalent in middle-aged people who are active.
Short of a trauma, the primary cause of Achilles tendonitis is when the calf muscle is so tight that the heel is unable to come down to the ground placing extreme stress on the Achilles tendon at the insertion. Keep in mind that the calf muscle is designed to contract up, lifting the heel bone off the ground, propelling you forwards to the front of the foot for push off. When the calf is so tight that the heel is prevented from coming down on the ground there will be stress on the tendon and the foot will over pronate causing the Achilles tendon to twist, adding to the stress on the insertion. Improper treatment may lead to a more severe injury, such as a rupture or chronic weakening, which may require surgery.
The main complaint associated with Achilles tendonitis is pain behind the heel. The pain is often most prominent in an area about 2-4 centimeters above where the tendon attaches to the heel. In this location, called the watershed zone of the tendon, the blood supply to the tendon makes this area particularly susceptible. Patients with Achilles tendonitis usually experience the most significant pain after periods of inactivity. Therefore patients tend to experience pain after first walking in the morning and when getting up after sitting for long periods of time. Patients will also experience pain while participating in activities, such as when running or jumping. Achilles tendonitis pain associated with exercise is most significant when pushing off or jumping.
Studies such as x-rays and MRIs are not usually needed to make the diagnosis of tendonitis. While they are not needed for diagnosis of tendonitis, x-rays may be performed to ensure there is no other problem, such as a fracture, that could be causing the symptoms of pain and swelling. X-rays may show evidence of swelling around the tendon. MRIs are also good tests identify swelling, and will show evidence of tendonitis. However, these tests are not usually needed to confirm the diagnosis; MRIs are usually only performed if there is a suspicion of another problem that could be causing the symptoms. Once the diagnosis of tendonitis is confirmed, the next step is to proceed with appropriate treatment. Treatment depends on the specific type of tendonitis. Once the specific diagnosis is confirmed, the appropriate treatment of tendonitis can be initiated.
Wear shoes with a low half-inch to one-inch heel that are somewhat flexible through the ball of the foot. Avoid flat footwear such as slippers or sandals and stiff shoes. Add a heel lift in your shoe. You may also use arch support inserts or orthotic insoles. Heel lifts and orthotics can be purchased at many of our pharmacies and Podiatry departments. Avoid standing or walking barefoot. Perform calf-stretching exercises for 30 to 60 seconds on each leg at least 2 times a day. Stand an arm?s length away from a wall, facing the wall. Lean into the wall, stepping forward with one leg, leaving the other stretched behind you. The leg behind you is the one being stretched. Keep this leg straight (locked) and the toes pointed straight at the wall. Stretch forward until you feel tightness in the calf of your back leg. Hold this position without bouncing for 30 to 60 seconds. Repeat for the opposite leg. Do stair exercises every day. Stand facing the stairs with the ball of your foot on a stair and your heel hanging off. Balance on one foot at a time while holding onto the rail. Slowly lower your heel as low as it will drop down and then slowly raise it up as high as you can lift it. Repeat this exercise slowly several times on each foot. Perform this exercise every other day, gradually increasing the number of repetitions over time as tolerated. If you are overweight, talk to your personal physician about resources that can help you lose weight. Carrying excess weight places additional pressure on your feet. Decrease the time that you stand, walk, or engage in exercises that put a load on your feet. Switch to a nonimpact form of exercise until your tendon heals, such as swimming, pool running, and using an elliptical trainer.
Achilles tendon repair surgery is often used to repair a ruptured or torn Achilles tendon, the strong fibrous cord that connects the two large muscles in the back of your calf to your heel bone. These muscles (the gastrocnemius and the soleus) create the power needed to push off with your foot or rise up on your toes. Achilles tendon ruptures are quite common. Most happen during recreational activities that require sudden bursts of muscle power in the legs. Often a torn Achilles tendon can be diagnosed with a physical examination. If swelling is present, the orthopaedist may delay the Achilles tendon surgery until it subsides.
Stay in good shape year-round and try to keep your muscles as strong as they can be. Strong, flexible muscles work more efficiently and put less stress on your tendon. Increase the intensity and length of your exercise sessions gradually. This is especially important if you’ve been inactive for a while or you’re new to a sport. Always warm up before you go for a run or play a sport. If your muscles are tight, your Achilles tendons have to work harder to compensate. Stretch it out. Stretch your legs, especially your calves, hamstrings, quadriceps, and thigh muscles – these muscles help stabilize your knee while running. Get shoes that fit properly and are designed for your sport. If you’re a jogger, go to a running specialty store and have a trained professional help you select shoes that match your foot type and offer plenty of support. Replace your shoes before they become worn out. Try to run on softer surfaces like grass, dirt trails, or synthetic tracks. Hard surfaces like concrete or asphalt can put extra pressure on the joints. Also avoid running up or down hills as much as possible. Vary your exercise routine. Work different muscle groups to keep yourself in good overall shape and keep individual muscles from getting overused. If you notice any symptoms of Achilles tendonitis, stop running or doing activities that put stress on your feet. Wait until all the pain is gone or you have been cleared to start participating again by a doctor.