You can feel your Achilles tendon beneath the skin on the back of your ankle. It is a fibrous band of tissue that connects your calf muscles to your heel bone (calcaneus), which allows you to lift your heel off the ground. Most commonly an overuse injury, the term Achilles tendinitis commonly refers to, acute inflammation in the sheath surrounding your tendon, chronic damage to the tendon itself, called tendinosis, a combination of the two. Achilles tendinitis can range from mild inflammation to, in rare cases, a tendon rupture. One type of tendinitis, called insertional Achilles tendinitis, can affect the end of the tendon where it attaches to your heel bone. Achilles tendinitis also can be associated with other foot problems, such as painful flat feet.
Achilles tendonitis most commonly occurs due to repetitive or prolonged activities placing strain on the Achilles tendon. This typically occurs due to excessive walking, running or jumping activities. Occasionally, it may occur suddenly due to a high force going through the Achilles tendon beyond what it can withstand. This may be due to a sudden acceleration or forceful jump. The condition may also occur following a calf or Achilles tear, following a poorly rehabilitated sprained ankle or in patients with poor foot biomechanics or inappropriate footwear. In athletes, this condition is commonly seen in running sports such as marathon, triathlon, football and athletics.
Common symptoms of Achilles tendinitis include weakness in the leg, slight pain above the heel in the lower leg after activity, feeling of stiffness in the leg that usually appears in the morning and lessens throughout the day, bad pain the day after exercising, pain as you climb stairs or go uphill, swelling in the area of the Achilles tendon, creaking or cracking noise when you press on the Achilles tendon.
Examination of the achilles tendon is inspection for muscle atrophy, swelling, asymmetry, joint effusions and erythema. Atrophy is an important clue to the duration of the tendinopathy and it is often present with chronic conditions. Swelling, asymmetry and erythema in pathologic tendons are often observed in the examination. Joint effusions are uncommon with tendinopathy and suggest the possibility of intra-articular pathology. Range of motion testing, strength and flexibility are often limited on the side of the tendinopathy. Palpation tends to elicit well-localized tenderness that is similar in quality and location to the pain experienced during activity. Physical examinations of the Achilles tendon often reveals palpable nodules and thickening. Anatomic deformities, such as forefoot and heel varus and excessive pes planus or foot pronation, should receive special attention. These anatomic deformities are often associated with this problem. In case extra research is wanted, an echography is the first choice of examination when there is a suspicion of tendinosis. Imaging studies are not necessary to diagnose achilles tendonitis, but may be useful with differential diagnosis. Ultrasound is the imaging modality of first choice as it provides a clear indication of tendon width, changes of water content within the tendon and collagen integrity, as well as bursal swelling. MRI may be indicated if diagnosis is unclear or symptoms are atypical. MRI may show increased signal within the Achilles.
The aim, when treating Achilles tendinitis, is to relieve pain and reduce swelling. The kind of treatment used can vary, based on the severity of the condition and whether or not the patient is a professional athlete. After diagnosis, the doctor will decide which method of treatment is required for the patient to undergo, it is likely that they will suggest a combination. Stretching achilles tendon, a doctor might show the patient some stretching exercises that help the Achilles tendon heal, as well as preventing future injury. Methods used to treat Achilles tendinitis include, ice packs – applying these to the tendon, when in pain or after exercising, can alleviate the pain and inflammation. Resting, this gives the tissue time to heal. The type of rest needed depends on the severity of the symptoms. In mild cases of Achilles tendinitis, it may mean just reducing the intensity of a workout, in severe cases it might mean complete rest for days or weeks. Elevating the foot, swelling can be reduced if the foot is kept raised above the level of the heart. Exercise and stretching, a doctor might show the patient some stretching exercises that help the Achilles tendon heal, as well as preventing future injury. They may, instead, refer the patient to a physiotherapist or another specialist. The exercises learned will improve the flexibility of the area and likely increase calf strength. Pain relievers – non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS), such as ibuprofen can reduce pain and swelling. If you suffer from asthma, kidney disease or liver disease do not take NSAIDs without first checking with your doctor. Steroid injections, these can reduce tendon swelling, but should be performed with caution, as this process has been associated with a greater risk of tendon rupture. A doctor would likely perform the injection while scanning the area with ultrasound to reduce this risk. Compression bandages and orthotic devices, such as ankle supports and shoe inserts can aid recovery as they take the stress off the Achilles tendon.
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.
Achilles tendinitis cannot always be prevented but the following tips will help you reduce your risk. If you are new to a sport, gradually ramp up your activity level to your desired intensity and duration. If you experience pain while exercising, stop. Avoid strenuous activity that puts excessive stress on your Achilles tendon. If you have a demanding workout planned, warm up slowly and thoroughly. Always exercise in shoes that are in good condition and appropriate for your activity or sport. Be sure to stretch your calf muscles and Achilles tendon before and after working out. If you suffer from Achilles tendinitis make sure you treat it properly and promptly. If self-care techniques don?t work, don?t delay. Book a consultation with a foot care expert or you may find yourself sidelined from your favourite sports and activities.