The Achilles tendon is the largest tendon in the body. Tendons are long, tough cords of tissue that connect muscle to bone. The Achilles tendon is located in the back of the foot and connects your heel bone to your calf muscle. It helps you to walk, run and jump. The Achilles tendon is able to endure stress, but sometimes injury can occur to the tendon when overly stressed. Overuse of the Achilles tendon may cause the tendon to swell, become irritated, inflamed and cause pain. This is Achilles tendinitis. It is a common sports injury related to running, but can happen to anyone who puts a lot of stress on their feet (e.g.: basketball players and dancers). If you do not get treatment for Achilles tendinitis, the problem can become chronic and make it difficult for you to walk.
The causes of Achilles tendonitis all appear to be related to excessive stress being transmitted through the tendon. Weak calf muscles, poor ankle range of motion, and excessive pronation have all been connected with the development of Achilles problems.The upshot is that all of these factors, plus training volume and so on, result in damage to the tendon. Much like a bungee cord is made up of tiny strands of rubber aligned together, tendons are comprised of small fiber-like proteins called collagen. Pain in the Achilles tendon is a result of damage to the collagen. Because of this, treatment options should start with ways to address this.
Achilles tendonitis is an injury that occurs when your Achilles tendon — the large band of tissues connecting the muscles in the back of your lower leg to your heel bone — becomes inflamed or irritated. The signs and symptoms of Achilles tendonitis often develop gradually. You’ll feel pain and stiffness in your Achilles, especially when you first get out of bed. The pain lessens as you warm up, and may even disappear as you continue running. Once you stop, the pain returns and may feel even worse. You may also notice a crackling or creaking sound when you touch or move your Achilles tendon.
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.
Achilles tendonitis will often respond to rest or changes in activity, stretching, or ice after activity. Non-steroidal anti- inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as ibuprofen or naproxen may also help. Physical therapy focusing on stretching and strengthening, massage, alternating hot and cold baths, and ultrasound or sound waves can also help with healing and comfort. The temporary use of a heel lift or the insertion of an arch support, called an orthotic, into the shoe or sneaker can also help. Although seldom necessary, the ankle may be kept in a short leg cast or splint. Surgery is rarely needed but can remove bone spurs or the bony prominence of the heel bone. The injection of corticosteroids such as cortisone into the area of the Achilles tendon is usually avoided because it may cause the tendon to rupture.
Not every Achilles tendon injury or condition requires surgery. It is generally understood by doctors and surgeons, that surgery will introduce more scar tissue into the Achilles tendon. This added scar tissue will be problematic, requiring physical therapy and conservative treatment options post-surgery. If not dealt with properly, your ankle and Achilles tendon could end up in worse condition than before the surgery! This is why surgery is only performed as a last resort.
Although Achilles tendinitis cannot be completely prevented, the risk of developing it can be lowered. Being aware of the possible causes does help, but the risk can be greatly reduced by taking the following precautions. Getting a variety of exercise – alternating between high-impact exercises (e.g. running) and low-impact exercise (e.g. swimming) can help, as it means there are days when the Achilles tendon is under less tension. Limit certain exercises – doing too much hill running, for example, can put excessive strain on the Achilles tendon. Wearing the correct shoes and replacing them when worn – making sure they support the arch and protect the heel will create less tension in the tendon. Using arch supports inside the shoe, if the shoe is in good condition but doesn’t provide the required arch support this is a cheaper (and possibly more effective) alternative to replacing the shoe completely. Stretching, doing this before and after exercising helps to keep the Achilles tendon flexible, which means less chance of tendinitis developing. There is no harm in stretching every day (even on days of rest), as this will only further improve flexibility. Gradually increasing the intensity of a workout – Achilles tendinitis can occur when the tendon is suddenly put under too much strain, warming up and increasing the level of activity gradually gives your muscles time to loosen up and puts less pressure on the tendon.