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.
Tight 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.
Symptoms of Achilles tendonitis include, pain in the back of the heel, difficulty walking, sometimes the pain makes walking impossible, swelling, tenderness and warmth of the Achilles tendon. Achilles tendonitis is graded according to how severe it is, mild – pain in the Achilles tendon during a particular activity (such as running) or shortly after. Moderate – the Achilles tendon may swell. In some cases, a hard lump (nodule) may form in the tendon. Severe – any type of activity that involves weight bearing causes pain of the Achilles tendon. Very occasionally, the Achilles tendon may rupture (tear). When an Achilles tendon ruptures, it is said to feel like a hard whack on the heel.
If Achilles tendonitis is suspected, avoid any exercise or activity that causes the pain. It is advisable to see a doctor promptly so that an accurate diagnosis can be made and appropriate treatment recommended. The doctor will take a full medical history and will ask about the nature and duration of the symptoms. They will perform a physical examination of the affected area. Ultrasound scanning may be used to assess damage to the tendon or surrounding structures. Occasionally MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) may be recommended. The symptoms of Achilles tendonitis are often similar to symptoms of other conditions such as partial Achilles tendon rupture and heel bursitis. This can make diagnosis difficult and a referral to an orthopaedic specialist may be required in order for an accurate diagnosis to be made.
Tendon inflammation should initially be treated with ice, gentle calf muscle stretching, and use of NSAIDs. A heel lift can be placed in the shoes to take tension off the tendon. Athletes should be instructed to avoid uphill and downhill running until the tendon is not painful and to engage in cross-training aerobic conditioning. Complete tears of the Achilles tendon usually require surgical repair.
Surgery 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.
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).