The Achilles tendon is the largest tendon in the body. It connects the calf muscles to the heel and is active during almost all activities including walking, jumping, and swimming. This dense tendon can withstand large forces, but can become inflamed and painful during periods of overuse. Pain results from inflammation (tendonitis) or a degenerating tendon (tendinosis). Achilles tendon pathologies include rupture and tendonitis. Many experts now believe, however, that tendonitis is a misleading term that should no longer be used, because signs of true inflammation are almost never present on histologic examination. Instead, the following histopathologically determined nomenclature has evolved. Paratenonitis: Characterized by paratenon inflammation and thickening, as well as fibrin adhesions. Tendinosis: Characterized by intrasubstance disarray and degeneration of the tendon.
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.
Patients with this condition typically experience pain in the region of the heel and back of the ankle. In less severe cases, patients may only experience an ache or stiffness in the Achilles region that increases with rest (typically at night or first thing in the morning) following activities which place stress on the Achilles tendon. These activities typically include walking or running excessively (especially uphill or on uneven surfaces), jumping, hopping, performing heel raises or performing calf stretches. The pain associated with this condition may also warm up with activity in the initial stages of injury. As the condition progresses, patients may experience symptoms that increase during sport or activity, affecting performance. Pain may also increase when performing a calf stretch or heel raise (i.e. rising up onto tip toes). In severe cases, patients may walk with a limp or be unable to weight bear on the affected leg. Patients with Achilles tendonitis may also experience swelling, tenderness on firmly touching the Achilles tendon, weakness and sometimes palpable thickening of the affected Achilles tendon when compared with the unaffected side.
If Achilles tendonitis is suspected, avoid any exercise or activity that causes the pain. It is advisable to see a doctor promptly so that an accurate diagnosis can be made and appropriate treatment recommended. The doctor will take a full medical history and will ask about the nature and duration of the symptoms. They will perform a physical examination of the affected area. Ultrasound scanning may be used to assess damage to the tendon or surrounding structures. Occasionally MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) may be recommended. The symptoms of Achilles tendonitis are often similar to symptoms of other conditions such as partial Achilles tendon rupture and heel bursitis. This can make diagnosis difficult and a referral to an orthopaedic specialist may be required in order for an accurate diagnosis to be made.
Relieving the stress is the first course of action. Treatment involves ice therapy and activity modification to reduce inflamation. Active stretching and strengthening exercises will assist rehabilitation of the gastrocnemius-soleus complex. When placed in a heeled shoe, the patient will immediately notice a difference, compared to flat ground. It is recommended that the patient be fitted with proper shoes & orthotics to control pronation and maintain proper alignment, relieving the stress on the achilles tendon. Tightness in the tendon itself can be helped by an extra heel lift added to the orthotics. The patient can expect a slow recovery over a period of months.
Surgery is considered the last resort. It is only recommended if all other treatment options have failed after at least six months. In this situation, badly damaged portions of the tendon may be removed. If the tendon has ruptured, surgery is necessary to re-attach the tendon. Rehabilitation, including stretching and strength exercises, is started soon after the surgery. In most cases, normal activities can be resumed after about 10 weeks. Return to competitive sport for some people may be delayed for about three to six months.
To lower your risk of Achilles tendonitis, stretch your calf muscles. Stretching at the beginning of each day will improve your agility and make you less prone to injury. You should also try to stretch both before and after workouts. To stretch your Achilles, stand with a straight leg, and lean forward as you keep your heel on the ground. If this is painful, be sure to check with a doctor. It is always a good idea to talk to your doctor before starting a new exercise routine. Whenever you begin a new fitness regimen, it is a good idea to set incremental goals. Gradually intensifying your physical activity is less likely to cause injury. Limiting sudden movements that jolt the heels and calves also helps to reduce the risk of Achilles tendonitis. Try combining both high- and low-impact exercises in your workouts to reduce stress on the tendon. For example, playing basketball can be combined with swimming. It doesn?t matter if you?re walking, running, or just hanging out. To decrease pressure on your calves and Achilles tendon, it?s important to always wear the right shoes. That means choosing shoes with proper cushioning and arch support. If you?ve worn a pair of shoes for a long time, consider replacing them or using arch supports. Some women feel pain in the Achilles tendon when switching from high heels to flats. Daily wearing of high heels can both tighten and shorten the Achilles tendon. Wearing flats causes additional bending in the foot. This can be painful for the high-heel wearer who is not accustomed to the resulting flexion. One effective strategy is to reduce the heel size of shoes gradually. This allows the tendon to slowly stretch and increase its range of motion.