The Achilles tendon connects the calf muscles in the lower leg to the heel bone. It is the largest yet most exposed tendon in the body. Achilles tendonitis is where the Achilles tendon, and sometimes the protective sheath through which it moves, becomes inflamed, causing pain and swelling symptoms. Achilles tendonitis (also known as Achilles tendinopathy or tendonosis) is classified as an overuse injury. If left untreated it can become chronic (long-term), requiring more intensive treatment. Achilles tendonitis can also increase the risk of sustaining an Achilles tendon rupture (tear).
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.
Symptoms vary because you can injure various areas of the muscle-tendon complex. The pain may be an acute or chronic sharp, stabbing, piercing, shooting, burning or aching. It is often most noticeable immediately after getting out of bed in the morning, or after periods of inactivity, like sitting down for lunch. After a couple minutes of walking around, it will often then settle down somewhat, before becoming symptomatic again after excessive time standing or walking. But regardless of how the pain is perceived, Achilles tendon pain should not be left untreated due to the danger that the tendon can become weak, frayed, thickened, and eventually it may rupture.
A doctor or professional therapist will confirm a diagnosis, identify and correct possible causes, apply treatment and prescribe eccentric rehabilitation exercises. An MRI or Ultrasound scan can determine the extent of the injury and indicate a precise diagnosis. Gait analysis along with a physical assessment will identify any possible biomechanical factors such as over pronation which may have contributed to the achilles tendonitis and training methods will be considered. Biomechanical problems can be corrected with the use of orthotic inserts and selection of correct footwear.
Massage therapy improves blood flow to the muscles and tissues of the affected area while increasing range of motion and can prevent recurring injury. The healing process can be quickened using ultrasound heat therapy to improve blood flow to the affected area. Wearing a night brace keeps the leg flexed, preventing stiffening of the tendon, which would impair healing. Stretching exercises increase flexibility and allow the tendon to heal without shortening, a deformity resulting in chronic pain. Persistent Achilles pain may warrant the use of a cast or walking boot to be worn for 4-6 weeks stabilizing the tendon so it can heal. After removal of the cast or boot, physical therapy will be ordered to increase functionality of the affected limb. To reduce chronic inflammation of the tendon, corticosteroid injections may be prescribed. It?s important to note that this corticosteroid treatment increases the risk of tendon rupture. Ultrasound imaging may be used by the physician administering the steroid injection, in order to help visualize the affected area. When all other therapies have failed to or tendon rupture occurs, surgical intervention and repair of the muscles and tendons is the last treatment option.
If non-surgical approaches fail to restore the tendon to its normal condition, surgery may be necessary. The foot and ankle surgeon will select the best procedure to repair the tendon, based upon the extent of the injury, the patient?s age and activity level, and other factors.
As with all injuries, prevention is your best defense especially with injuries that are as painful and inconvenient as Achilles tendonitis. Options for how to prevent Achilles tendonitis include, stretching- Stretching properly, starting slowly, and increasing gradually will be critical if you want to avoid Achilles tendonitis. To help maintain flexibility in the ankle joint, begin each day with a series of stretches and be certain to stretch prior to, and after, any exercise or excessive physical activity. Orthotics and Heel Support- Bio-mechanically engineered inserts and heel cups can be placed in your shoes to correct misalignments or bolster the support of your foot and are available without a prescription. The temporary heel padding that these provide reduces the length that the Achilles tendon stretches each time you step, making it more comfortable to go about your daily routine. Proper Footwear- Low-heeled shoes with good arch support and shock absorption are best for the health of your foot. Look into heel wedges and other shoe inserts to make sure that your everyday foot mechanics are operating under ideal conditions.