Achilles tendinitis is very common among running athletes. The calf muscles attach to the calcaneus via the Achilles tendon. During running, the calf muscles help with the lift-off phase of gait. Repetitive forces from running combined with insufficient recovery time can initially cause inflammation in the tendon paratenon (fatty areolar tissue that surrounds the tendon). A complete tear of the Achilles tendon is a serious injury, usually resulting from sudden, forceful stress. Tendon tears can occur with minimal exertion in people who have taken fluoroquinolone antibiotics.
Achilles tendinitis is caused by repetitive or intense strain on the Achilles tendon, the band of tissue that connects your calf muscles to your heel bone. This tendon is used when you walk, run, jump or push up on your toes. The structure of the Achilles tendon weakens with age, which can make it more susceptible to injury – particularly in people who may participate in sports only on the weekends or who have suddenly increased the intensity of their running programs.
People with Achilles tendinitis may experience pain during and after exercising. Running and jumping activities become painful and difficult. Symptoms include stiffness and pain in the back of the ankle when pushing off the ball of the foot. For patients with chronic tendinitis (longer than six weeks), x-rays may reveal calcification (hardening of the tissue) in the tendon. Chronic tendinitis can result in a breakdown of the tendon, or tendinosis, which weakens the tendon and may cause a rupture.
Studies such as x-rays and MRIs are not usually needed to make the diagnosis of tendonitis. While they are not needed for diagnosis of tendonitis, x-rays may be performed to ensure there is no other problem, such as a fracture, that could be causing the symptoms of pain and swelling. X-rays may show evidence of swelling around the tendon. MRIs are also good tests identify swelling, and will show evidence of tendonitis. However, these tests are not usually needed to confirm the diagnosis; MRIs are usually only performed if there is a suspicion of another problem that could be causing the symptoms. Once the diagnosis of tendonitis is confirmed, the next step is to proceed with appropriate treatment. Treatment depends on the specific type of tendonitis. Once the specific diagnosis is confirmed, the appropriate treatment of tendonitis can be initiated.
In order to treat achilles tendinitis effectively, it is important to complete a thorough examination of the entire lower extremity. Once the true cause is identified, a comprehensive treatment program can be initiated to reduce inflammation and improve any faulty lower extremity biomechanics. Treatment options may include biomechanical analysis of gait. Splinting/bracing to alleviate the strain on the tendon. Soft tissue mobilization/manual therapy to decrease inflammation and promote healing of the tendon. Strengthening/flexibility and proprioceptive exercises. Home exercise program. Modalities for pain and inflammation (i.e. ultrasound, iontophoresis, electrical stimulation, ice). Methods to alter faulty mechanics (i.e taping, orthotics). Education about lifestyle changes (i.e. proper shoes, activity modification).
It is important to understand that surgery may not give you 100% functionality of your leg, but you should be able to return to most if not all of your pre-injury activities. These surgical procedures are often performed with very successful results. What truly makes a difference is your commitment to a doctor recommended rehabilitation program after surgery as there is always a possibility of re-injuring your tendon even after a surgical procedure. One complication of surgical repair for Achilles tendon tear is that skin can become thin at site of incision, and may have limited blood flow.
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.