Do you experience dull pain near the back of your heel or in the back of your leg after your regular run or after playing your favourite sport? When you ramp up your exercise is the pain more severe or prolonged? If so, you may have Achilles tendinitis. The Achilles tendon is the thick, strong, springy band of tissue that connects the muscles from the middle of your calf to your heel bone. You use your Achilles tendon when you walk, run or jump. Achilles tendinitis occurs when the Achilles tendon is repeatedly strained. The Achilles tendon becomes less flexible, weaker and more prone to injury as we age. Middle-aged weekend warriors and runners who suddenly intensify their training often suffer from Achilles tendinitis.
There are a number of causes and risk factors associated with Achilles Tendinitis. One of the most common causes is simply a lack of conditioning. If the tendon, and muscles that connect to the tendon, have not been trained or conditioned, this can lead to a weakness that may result in an Achilles injury. Overtraining is also associated with Achilles Tendinitis. Doing too much, too soon places excessive strain on the Achilles tendon and doesn’t allow the tendon enough time to recovery properly. Over time small tears and general degeneration result in a weakening of the tendon, which leads to inflammation and pain. Other causes of Achilles injury include a lack of warming up and stretching. Wearing inadequate footwear, running or training on uneven ground, and simply standing on, or in something you’re not meant to. Biomechanical problems such as high arched feet or flat feet can also lead to Achilles injuries.
Pain in the back of the heel that can be a shooting pain, burning pain or even an intense piercing pain. Swelling, tenderness and warmth over the Achilles tendon especially at the insertion of the tendon to the calcaneous, which may even extend into the muscle of the calf. Difficulty walking, sometimes the pain makes walking impossible. Pain that is aggravated by activities that repeatedly stress the tendon, causing inflammation or pain that occurs in the first few steps of the morning or after sitting down for extended periods of time which gets better with mild activity. It is important to note though that achilles tendinosis can develop gradually without a history of trauma.
Confirming Achilles tendonitis may involve imaging tests. X-rays provide images of the bones of the foot and leg. Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) is useful for detecting ruptures and degeneration of tissue. Ultrasound shows tendon movement, related damage, and inflammation.
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.
If several months of more-conservative treatments don’t work or if the tendon has torn, your doctor may suggest surgery to repair your Achilles tendon.
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.