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.
There are two large muscles in the calf. These muscles are important for walking. They create the power needed to push off with the foot or go up on the toes. The large Achilles tendon connects these muscles to the heel. Heel pain is most often due to overuse of the foot. Rarely it is caused by an injury. Tendinitis due to overuse is most common in younger people. It can occur in walkers, runners, or other athletes. Achilles tendinitis may be more likely to occur if you Suddenly increase the amount or intensity of an activity. Your calf muscles are very tight (not stretched out). You run on hard surfaces such as concrete. You run too often, you jump a lot (such as when playing basketball), you do not have shoes with proper support, your foot suddenly turns in or out. Tendinitis from arthritis is more common in middle-aged and elderly people. A bone spur or growth may form in the back of the heel bone. This may irritate the Achilles tendon and cause pain and swelling.
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.
During an examination of the foot and ankle, you doctor will look for the following signs, Achilles tendon swelling or thickening. Bone spurs appearing at the lower part of the tendon at the back of the hell. Pain at the middle or lower area of the Achilles tendon. Limited range of motion of the foot and ankle, and a decreased ability to flex the foot. Your doctor may perform imaging tests, such as X-rays and MRI scans, to make a diagnosis of Achilles tendinitis. X-rays show images of the bones and can help the physician to determine if the Achilles tendon has become hardened, which indicated insertional Achilles tendinitis. MRI scans may not be necessary, but they are important guides if you are recommended to have surgical treatment. An MRI can show the severity of the damage and determine what kind of procedure would be best to address the condition.
Most cases of Achilles tendonitis can be treated at home. Here’s what to do. Stop doing the activity that led to the injury. Avoid putting stress on your legs and feet, and give your tendon plenty of time to fully recover. Use the RICE formula. Don’t exercise for a few days, or try an exercise that doesn’t stress your feet, such as swimming. If necessary, your doctor may recommend that you use crutches or wear a walking boot to keep weight off your foot. Apply an ice pack wrapped in a towel or a cold compress to your tendon for 15 minutes or more after you exercise or if you feel pain in the tendon. Use tape or an athletic wrap to keep swelling down and help support and immobilize the tendon. Lie down and raise your foot above the level of your heart, and if possible, try to sleep with your foot elevated. This will help keep the swelling to a minimum. Take anti-inflammatory medications. Pain relievers like ibuprofen can help ease pain and reduce swelling in the affected area. Stretch and exercise your ankles and calf muscles while you recover. Keeping your muscles, tendons, and ligaments strong and flexible will aid in your recovery and help you keep from reinjuring your Achilles tendon. A doctor or a physical therapist can help you come up with a good exercise program. Try a pair of prescription orthotic inserts for your shoes if your doctor thinks it will help. Sometimes orthotics can be helpful. Talk to your doctor or someone trained in fitting orthotics to find out if they might work for you. Achilles tendon surgery is rarely needed. It’s usually only done if the tendon breaks, and then only as a last resort after other methods of therapy have been tried. Most cases of Achilles tendonitis will get better on their own with rest and minor treatment.
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.
Do strengthening and stretching exercises to keep calf muscles strong and flexible. Keep your hamstring muscles flexible by stretching. Warm up and stretch adequately before participating in any sports. Always increase the intensity and duration of training gradually. Do not continue an exercise if you experience pain over the tendon. Wear properly fitted running and other sports shoes, including properly fitted arch supports if your feet roll inwards excessively (over-pronate).