OverviewThe Achilles tendon is the largest and strongest tendon in the human body. It is the ?cord? in the back of the leg that inserts into the back of the heel. The Achilles tendon got its name, according to Greek legend, when the Greek warrior, Achilles, was dipped into the River Styx by Thetis, his mother. This rendered him invincible with the exception of his unsubmerged heel. Unfortunately, he went on to get mortally wounded during the siege of Troy when he was struck in that heel by an arrow. Achilles tendinitis is inflammation and partial tearing of the Achilles tendon. It can occur with overuse of the tendon such as when starting or increasing the intensity of an exercise program or performing impact loading activities that include a lot of running and/or jumping.
CausesTight or tired calf muscles, which transfer too much of the force associated with running onto the Achilles tendon. Not stretching the calves properly or a rapid increase in intensity and frequency of sport training can make calf muscles fatigued. Activities which place a lot of stress on the achilles tendon, such as hill running and sprint training, can also cause Achilles Tendinitis. Runners who overpronate (roll too far inward on their feet during impact) are most susceptible to Achilles Tendinitis. Runners with flat feet are susceptible to Achilles Tendinitis because flat feet cause a 'wringing out' effect on the achilles tendon during running. High arched feet usually absorb less shock from the impact of running so that shock is transferred to the Achilles tendon. Use of inappropriate footwear when playing sport or running e.g., sandals, can also put an extra load on the Achilles tendon. Shoes are now available that have been designed for individual sports and provide cushioning to absorb the shock of impact and support for the foot during forceful movements. Training on hard surfaces e.g., concrete, also increases the risk of Achilles Tendinitis. Landing heavily or continuously on a hard surface can send a shock through the body which is partly absorbed by the Achilles tendon. A soft surface like grass turf helps to lessen the shock of the impact by absorbing some of the force of the feet landing heavily on the ground after a jump or during a running motion.
SymptomsAchilles tendonitis typically starts off as a dull stiffness in the tendon, which gradually goes away as the area gets warmed up. It may get worse with faster running, uphill running, or when wearing spikes and other low-heeled running shoes. If you continue to train on it, the tendon will hurt more sharply and more often, eventually impeding your ability even to jog lightly. About two-thirds of Achilles tendonitis cases occur at the ?midpoint? of the tendon, a few inches above the heel. The rest are mostly cases of ?insertional? Achilles tendonitis, which occurs within an inch or so of the heelbone. Insertional Achilles tendonitis tends to be more difficult to get rid of, often because the bursa, a small fluid-filled sac right behind the tendon, can become irritated as well.
DiagnosisStudies 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.
Nonsurgical TreatmentWear shoes with a low half-inch to one-inch heel that are somewhat flexible through the ball of the foot. Avoid flat footwear such as slippers or sandals and stiff shoes. Add a heel lift in your shoe. You may also use arch support inserts or orthotic insoles. Heel lifts and orthotics can be purchased at many of our pharmacies and Podiatry departments. Avoid standing or walking barefoot. Perform calf-stretching exercises for 30 to 60 seconds on each leg at least 2 times a day. Stand an arm?s length away from a wall, facing the wall. Lean into the wall, stepping forward with one leg, leaving the other stretched behind you. The leg behind you is the one being stretched. Keep this leg straight (locked) and the toes pointed straight at the wall. Stretch forward until you feel tightness in the calf of your back leg. Hold this position without bouncing for 30 to 60 seconds. Repeat for the opposite leg. Do stair exercises every day. Stand facing the stairs with the ball of your foot on a stair and your heel hanging off. Balance on one foot at a time while holding onto the rail. Slowly lower your heel as low as it will drop down and then slowly raise it up as high as you can lift it. Repeat this exercise slowly several times on each foot. Perform this exercise every other day, gradually increasing the number of repetitions over time as tolerated. If you are overweight, talk to your personal physician about resources that can help you lose weight. Carrying excess weight places additional pressure on your feet. Decrease the time that you stand, walk, or engage in exercises that put a load on your feet. Switch to a nonimpact form of exercise until your tendon heals, such as swimming, pool running, and using an elliptical trainer.
Surgical TreatmentSurgery should be considered to relieve Achilles tendinitis only if the pain does not improve after 6 months of nonsurgical treatment. The specific type of surgery depends on the location of the tendinitis and the amount of damage to the tendon. Gastrocnemius recession. This is a surgical lengthening of the calf (gastrocnemius) muscles. Because tight calf muscles place increased stress on the Achilles tendon, this procedure is useful for patients who still have difficulty flexing their feet, despite consistent stretching. In gastrocnemius recession, one of the two muscles that make up the calf is lengthened to increase the motion of the ankle. The procedure can be performed with a traditional, open incision or with a smaller incision and an endoscope-an instrument that contains a small camera. Your doctor will discuss the procedure that best meets your needs. Complication rates for gastrocnemius recession are low, but can include nerve damage. Gastrocnemius recession can be performed with or without d?bridement, which is removal of damaged tissue. D?bridement and repair (tendon has less than 50% damage). The goal of this operation is to remove the damaged part of the Achilles tendon. Once the unhealthy portion of the tendon has been removed, the remaining tendon is repaired with sutures, or stitches to complete the repair. In insertional tendinitis, the bone spur is also removed. Repair of the tendon in these instances may require the use of metal or plastic anchors to help hold the Achilles tendon to the heel bone, where it attaches. After d?bridement and repair, most patients are allowed to walk in a removable boot or cast within 2 weeks, although this period depends upon the amount of damage to the tendon. D?bridement with tendon transfer (tendon has greater than 50% damage). In cases where more than 50% of the Achilles tendon is not healthy and requires removal, the remaining portion of the tendon is not strong enough to function alone. To prevent the remaining tendon from rupturing with activity, an Achilles tendon transfer is performed. The tendon that helps the big toe point down is moved to the heel bone to add strength to the damaged tendon. Although this sounds severe, the big toe will still be able to move, and most patients will not notice a change in the way they walk or run. Depending on the extent of damage to the tendon, some patients may not be able to return to competitive sports or running. Recovery. Most patients have good results from surgery. The main factor in surgical recovery is the amount of damage to the tendon. The greater the amount of tendon involved, the longer the recovery period, and the less likely a patient will be able to return to sports activity. Physical therapy is an important part of recovery. Many patients require 12 months of rehabilitation before they are pain-free.
PreventionA 2014 study looked at the effect of using foot orthotics on the Achilles tendon. The researchers found that running with foot orthotics resulted in a significant decrease in Achilles tendon load compared to running without orthotics. This study indicates that foot orthoses may act to reduce the incidence of chronic Achilles tendon pathologies in runners by reducing stress on the Achilles tendon1. Orthotics seem to reduce load on the Achilles tendon by reducing excessive pronation,