The Achilles tendon is the tendon that attaches the gastrocnemius (calf muscles) to the calcaneus bone (back of the heel). It is important in activities that involve plantar flexion of the ankle (pushing down with the foot or doing heel raises). The Achilles tendon can get inflamed (tendinitis) or it can degenerate/wear out (tendinopathy) with repetitive activities. Aggravating activities include running and/or repetitive jumping.
Over-pronation, injury and overstresses of the tendon are some of the most common causes. Risk factors include tight heel cords, poor foot alignment, and recent changes in activities or shoes. During a normal gait cycle, the upper and lower leg rotate in unison (i.e. internally during pronation and externally during supination). However, when a person over-pronates, the lower leg is locked into the foot and therefore continues to rotate internally past the end of the contact phase while the femur begins to rotate externally at the beginning of midstance. The Gastrocnemius muscle is attached to the upper leg and rotates externally while the Soleus muscle is attached to the lower leg and rotates internally during pronation. The resulting counter rotation of the upper and lower leg causes a shearing force to occur in the Achilles tendon. This counter rotation twists the tendon at its weakest area, namely the Achilles tendon itself, and causes the inflammation. Since the tendon is avascular, once inflammation sets in, it tends to be chronic.
Achilles tendonitis may be felt as a burning pain at the beginning of activity, which gets less during activity and then worsens following activity. The tendon may feel stiff first thing in the morning or at the beginning of exercise. Achilles tendonitis usually causes pain, stiffness, and loss of strength in the affected area. The pain may get worse when you use your Achilles tendon. You may have more pain and stiffness during the night or when you get up in the morning. The area may be tender, red, warm, or swollen if there is inflammation. You may notice a crunchy sound or feeling when you use the tendon.
If you think you might have Achilles tendonitis, check in with your doctor before it gets any worse. Your doc will ask about the activities you’ve been doing and will examine your leg, foot, ankle, and knee for range of motion. If your pain is more severe, the doctor may also make sure you haven’t ruptured (torn) your Achilles tendon. To check this, the doc might have you lie face down and bend your knee while he or she presses on your calf muscles to see if your foot flexes. Any flexing of the foot means the tendon is at least partly intact. It’s possible that the doctor might also order an X-ray or MRI scan of your foot and leg to check for fractures, partial tears of the tendon, or signs of a condition that might get worse. Foot and ankle pain also might be a sign of other overuse injuries that can cause foot and heel pain, like plantar fasciitis and Sever’s disease. If you also have any problems like these, they also need to be treated.
NSAIDS like ibuprofen are often prescribed to help manage the pain and inflammation. Steroids are often recommended when patients do not respond to NSAID treatment. They are often most effective when injected directly into the inflamed and swollen area. Physiotherapy is a great way to stretch and strengthen the Achilles tendon. A good physical therapist will also teach the patient techniques which give better foot support during exercise (taping, wrapping, etc?). Orthotics, assistive devices and insoles can be used to cushion and cradle the arch of the foot during the healing process. Shock Wave Therapy. This is the newest form of treatment and uses concentrated sound waves to stimulate healing in the affected area. This form of treatment is reserved for heel pain that is unresponsive to other forms of treatment.
Surgery can be done to remove hardened fibrous tissue and repair any small tendon tears as a result of repetitive use injuries. This approach can also be used to help prevent an Achilles tendon rupture. If your Achilles tendon has already ruptured or torn, Achilles tendon surgery can be used to reattach the ends of the torn tendon. This approach is more thorough and definitive compared to non surgical treatment options discussed above. Surgical reattachment of the tendon also minimizes the change of re-rupturing the Achilles tendon.
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.