The Achilles tendon connects the calf muscles in the lower leg to the heel bone. It is the largest yet most exposed tendon in the body. Achilles tendonitis is where the Achilles tendon, and sometimes the protective sheath through which it moves, becomes inflamed, causing pain and swelling symptoms. Achilles tendonitis (also known as Achilles tendinopathy or tendonosis) is classified as an overuse injury. If left untreated it can become chronic (long-term), requiring more intensive treatment. Achilles tendonitis can also increase the risk of sustaining an Achilles tendon rupture (tear).
Unusual use or overuse of the lower leg muscles and Achilles tendon is usually the cause of Achilles tendinitis. Repetitive jumping, kicking, and sprinting can lead to Achilles tendinitis in both recreational and competitive athletes. Runners, dancers, and athletes over age 65 are especially at risk. Sudden increases in training or competition can also inflame your Achilles tendon. For example, adding hills, stair-climbing, or sprinting to your running workout puts extra stress on your Achilles tendon. Improper technique during training can also strain the tendon. Intense running or jumping without stretching and strengthening your lower leg muscles can put you at risk regardless of your age or fitness level. Running on tight, exhausted, or fatigued calf muscles can put added stress on your Achilles tendon, as your tendon may not be ready to quickly start a workout after a period of inactivity. Direct blows or other injuries to the ankle, foot, or lower leg may pull your Achilles tendon too far and stretch the tissue. A hard contraction of the calf muscles, such as can happen when you push for the final sprint in a race, can strain the tendon. People whose feet roll inward, a condition called overpronation, are particularly at risk. Sometimes, shoes with too much heel cushioning put extra strain on the Achilles tendon.
Symptoms of Achilles Tendinitis include the following. Pain and stiffness along the Achilles tendon in the morning. Pain along the tendon or back of the heel that worsens with activity. Severe pain the day after exercising. Thickening of the tendon. Bone spur (insertional tendinitis). Swelling that is present all the time and gets worse throughout the day with activity. If you have an Achilles tendon rupture, you might feel a pop or snap, accompanied by a sharp pain behind your ankle. You are likely to have difficulty walking properly. If you have ruptured your Achilles tendon then surgery is likely to be the best treatment option.
X-rays are usually normal in patients with Achilles tendonitis, but are performed to evaluate for other possible conditions. Occasionally, an MRI is needed to evaluate a patient for tears within the tendon. If there is a thought of surgical treatment an MRI may be helpful for preoperative evaluation and planning.
Treatment approaches for Achilles tendonitis or tendonosis are selected on the basis of how long the injury has been present and the degree of damage to the tendon. In the early stage, when there is sudden (acute) inflammation, one or more of the following options may be recommended. Immobilization. Immobilization may involve the use of a cast or removable walking boot to reduce forces through the Achilles tendon and promote healing. Ice. To reduce swelling due to inflammation, apply a bag of ice over a thin towel to the affected area for 20 minutes of each waking hour. Do not put ice directly against the skin. Oral medications. Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as ibuprofen, may be helpful in reducing the pain and inflammation in the early stage of the condition. Orthotics. For those with over-pronation or gait abnormalities, custom orthotic devices may be prescribed. Night splints. Night splints help to maintain a stretch in the Achilles tendon during sleep. Physical therapy. Physical therapy may include strengthening exercises, soft-tissue massage/mobilization, gait and running re-education, stretching, and ultrasound therapy.
The type of surgery you will have depends on the type of injury you are faced with. The longer you have waited to have surgery will also be a factor that determines what type of surgery is needed. With acute (recent) tearing the separation in your Achilles tendon is likely to be very minimal. If you have an acute tear you may qualify for less invasive surgery (such as a mini-open procedure). Surgeons will always choose a shorter, less invasive procedure if it is possible to do so. Most surgeons know that a less complicated procedure will have less trauma to the tendon and a much quicker rate of recovery after the surgery.
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.