Achilles tendonitis, also sometimes called Achilles tendinitis, is a painful and often debilitating inflammation of the Achilles tendon (heel cord). The Achilles tendon is the largest and strongest tendon in the body. It is located in the back of the lower leg, attaches to the heel bone (calcaneus), and connects the leg muscles to the foot. The Achilles tendon gives us the ability to rise up on our toes, facilitating the act of walking, and Achilles tendonitis can make walking almost impossible. There are three stages of tendon inflammation, Peritenonitis, Tendinosis, Peritenonitis with tendinosis. Peritenonitis is characterized by localized pain during or following activity. As this condition progresses, pain often develops earlier on during activity, with decreased activity, or while at rest. Tendinosis is a degenerative condition that usually does not produce symptoms (i.e., is asymptomatic). It may cause swelling or a hard knot of tissue (nodule) on the back of the leg. Peritenonitis with tendinosis results in pain and swelling with activity. As this condition progresses, partial or complete tendon rupture may occur. The overall incidence of Achilles tendonitis is unknown. The condition occurs in approximately 6-18% of runners, and also is more common in athletes, especially in sports that involve jumping (e.g., basketball), and in people who do a lot of walking. Achilles tendonitis that occurs as a result of arthritis in the heel is more common in people who are middle aged and older.
Tendinitis typically develops after abrupt changes in activity or training level, use of poorly fit or worn footwear, or training on uneven or dense running surfaces. Overuse prior to sufficient training is generally the cause. This is due to forces 8-10 times the body weight acting on the tendon during physical activity. Achilles injuries range from inflammation to a breakdown in the tendon. Pain is generally felt low on the back of the heel due to the low vascularity and susceptibility for inflammation. Pain higher on the Achilles is generally more muscular pain and less tendonitis. If swollen spots or knots are found along the tendon, or if the tendon feels jagged, cease activity and seek professional medical care.
The Achilles tendon is a strong muscle and is not usually damaged by one specific injury. Tendinitis develops from repetitive stress, sudden increase or intensity of exercise activity, tight calf muscles, or a bone spur that rubs against the tendon. Common signs and symptoms of Achilles Tendinitis include, gradual onset of pain at the back of the ankle which may develop in several days up to several months to become bothersome. Heel pain during physical activities which may diminish after warming up in early stages, or become a constant problem if the problem becomes chronic. Stiffness at the back of the ankle in the morning. During inactivity, pain eases. Swelling or thickening of the Achilles tendon. Painful sensation if the Achilles tendon is palpated. If a pop is heard suddenly, then there is an increased chance that the Achilles tendon has been torn and immediate medical attention is needed.
During the physical exam, your doctor will gently press on the affected area to determine the location of pain, tenderness or swelling. He or she will also evaluate the flexibility, alignment, range of motion and reflexes of your foot and ankle. Your doctor may order one or more of the following tests to assess your condition, X-rays. While X-rays can’t visualize soft tissues such as tendons, they may help rule out other conditions that can cause similar symptoms. Ultrasound. This device uses sound waves to visualize soft tissues like tendons. Ultrasound can also produce real-time images of the Achilles tendon in motion. Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). Using radio waves and a very strong magnet, MRI machines can produce very detailed images of the Achilles tendon.
Treatment options might include anti-inflammatory medication such as ibuprofen which might help with acute achilles inflammation and pain but has not been proven to be beneficial long term and may even inhibit healing. If the injury is severe then a plaster cast might be applied to immobilize the tendon. Use of electrotherapy such as ultrasound treatment, laser therapy and extracorporeal shock wave therapy (ESWT) may be beneficial in reducing pain and encouraging healing. Applying sports massage techniques can mobilze the tissues or the tendon itself and help stretch the calf muscles. Some might give a steroid injection however an injection directly into the tendon is not recommended. Some specialists believe this can increase the risk of a total rupture of the tendon in future. One of the most effective forms of treatment for achilles tendonitis is a full rehabilitation program consisting of eccentric strengthening exercises. There is now considerable evidence suggesting the effectiveness of slow eccentric rehabilitation exercises for curing achilles tendon pain.
Chronic Achilles tendon tears can be more complicated to repair. A tendon that has torn and retracted (pulled back) into the leg will scar in the shortened position over time. Restoring normal tendon length is usually not an issue when surgery is performed within a few weeks of the injury. However, when there has been a delay of months or longer, the treatment can be more complicated. Several procedures can be used to add length to a chronic Achilles tear. A turndown procedure uses tissue folded down from the top of the calf to add length to the Achilles tendon. Tendon transfers from other tendons of the ankle can also be performed to help restore function of the Achilles. The results of surgery in a chronic situation are seldom as good as an acute repair. However, in some patients, these procedures can help restore function of a chronically damaged Achilles.
Warm up slowly by running at least one minute per mile slower than your usual pace for the first mile. Running backwards during your first mile is also a very effective way to warm up the Achilles, because doing so produces a gentle eccentric load that acts to strengthen the tendon. Runners should also avoid making sudden changes in mileage, and they should be particularly careful when wearing racing flats, as these shoes produce very rapid rates of pronation that increase the risk of Achilles tendon injury. If you have a tendency to be stiff, spend extra time stretching. If you?re overly flexible, perform eccentric load exercises preventively. Lastly, it is always important to control biomechanical alignment issues, either with proper running shoes and if necessary, stock or custom orthotics.