Achilles Tendonitis Problems Treatments And Causes
Achilles tendonitis is an inflammation of the Achilles tendon, which attaches the calf muscles (gastrocnemius and soleus) to the heel bone (calcaneus). Pain can be felt on the back of the heel at the attachment of the tendon, along the length of the tendon, or at the base of the calf where the tendon attaches to the muscle. Swelling is not always present with this injury, but it may occur in severe cases.
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.
The pain associated with Achilles tendinitis typically begins as a mild ache in the back of the leg or above the heel after running or other sports activity. Episodes of more severe pain may occur after prolonged running, stair climbing or sprinting. You might also experience tenderness or stiffness, especially in the morning, which usually improves with mild activity. If you experience persistent pain around the Achilles tendon, call your doctor. Seek immediate medical attention if the pain or disability is severe. You may have a torn (ruptured) Achilles tendon.
A podiatrist can usually make the diagnosis by clinical history and physical examination alone. Pain with touching or stretching the tendon is typical. There may also be a visible swelling to the tendon. The patient frequently has difficulty plantarflexing (pushing down the ball of the foot and toes, like one would press on a gas pedal), particularly against resistance. In most cases X-rays don't show much, as they tend to show bone more than soft tissues. But X-rays may show associated degeneration of the heel bone that is common with Achilles Tendon problems. For example, heel spurs, calcification within the tendon, avulsion fractures, periostitis (a bruising of the outer covering of the bone) may all be seen on X-ray. In cases where we are uncertain as to the extent of the damage to the tendon, though, an MRI scan may be necessary, which images the soft tissues better than X-rays. When the tendon is simply inflamed and not severely damaged, the problem may or may not be visible on MRI. It depends upon the severity of the condition.
Treatment depends on severity of pain. The most effective long-term treatment for Achilles tendinitis/tendinopathy is physical therapy, particularly therapy that focuses on eccentric muscle/tendon strengthening. Calf and Achilles stretching are also an important part of the treatment. In severe cases, treatment may begin with a period of rest and immobilization in order to calm down the tendon before physical therapy is initiated. Anti-inflammatories may be prescribed. Avoiding activities that aggravate the Achilles tendon will help the healing process. Improvement and resolution of symptoms can take months. Exercise might be the cause of Achilles tendonitis, but it can also help prevent it and aid in recovery. Healing will occur more quickly if there is no pressure on the injured tendon, and if the foot is at least partially immobilized.
Occasionally, conservative management of Achilles tendon conditions fails. This failure is more common in older male patients and those with longstanding symptoms, those who persist in full training despite symptoms or those who have uncorrected predisposing factors. In these cases, surgery may be indicated. It should be remembered, however, that the rehabilitation program, particularly for severe Achilles tendon injuries, is a slow, lengthy program. Surgery is only indicated when there is failure to progress in the rehabilitation program. Surgery should not be considered unless at least six months of appropriate conservative management has failed to lead to improvement.
Regardless of whether the Achilles injury is insertional or non-insertional, a great method for lessening stress on the Achilles tendon is flexor digitorum longus exercises. This muscle, which originates along the back of the leg and attaches to the tips of the toes, lies deep to the Achilles. It works synergistically with the soleus muscle to decelerate the forward motion of the leg before the heel leaves the ground during propulsion. This significantly lessens strain on the Achilles tendon as it decelerates elongation of the tendon. Many foot surgeons are aware of the connection between flexor digitorum longus and the Achilles tendon-surgical lengthening of the Achilles (which is done to treat certain congenital problems) almost always results in developing hammer toes as flexor digitorum longus attempts to do the job of the recently lengthened tendon. Finally, avoid having cortisone injected into either the bursa or tendon-doing so weakens the tendon as it shifts production of collagen from type one to type three. In a recent study published in the Journal of Bone Joint Surgery(9), cortisone was shown to lower the stress necessary to rupture the Achilles tendon, and was particularly dangerous when done on both sides, as it produced a systemic effect that further weakened the tendon.