Achilles tendonitis is an inflammation of the Achilles tendon. This inflammation is typically short-lived. Over time, if not resolved, the condition may progress to a degeneration of the tendon (Achilles tendonosis), in which the tendon loses its organized structure and is likely to develop microscopic tears. Sometimes the degeneration involves the site where the Achilles tendon attaches to the heel bone. In rare cases, chronic degeneration with or without pain may result in rupture of the tendon.
Tendinitis typically develops after abrupt changes in activity or training level, use of poorly fit or worn footwear, or training on uneven or dense running surfaces. Overuse prior to sufficient training is generally the cause. This is due to forces 8-10 times the body weight acting on the tendon during physical activity. Achilles injuries range from inflammation to a breakdown in the tendon. Pain is generally felt low on the back of the heel due to the low vascularity and susceptibility for inflammation. Pain higher on the Achilles is generally more muscular pain and less tendonitis. If swollen spots or knots are found along the tendon, or if the tendon feels jagged, cease activity and seek professional medical care.
Symptoms of Achilles tendinitis and tendinosis include recurring localized heel pain, sometimes severe, along the achilles tendon during or after exercise. Pain often begins after exercise and gradually worsens. Morning tenderness or stiffness about an inch and a half above the point where the Achilles tendon is attached to the heel bone. Sluggishness in your leg. Mild to severe swelling. Stiffness that generally diminishes as the tendon warms up with use.
Laboratory studies usually are not necessary in evaluating and diagnosing an Achilles tendon rupture or injury, although evaluation may help to rule out some of the other possibilities in the differential diagnosis. Imaging studies. Plain radiography: Radiographs are more useful for ruling out other injuries than for ruling in Achilles tendon ruptures. Ultrasonography: Ultrasonography of the leg and thigh can help to evaluate the possibility of deep venous thrombosis and also can be used to rule out a Baker cyst; in experienced hands, ultrasonography can identify a ruptured Achilles tendon or the signs of tendinosis. Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI): MRI can facilitate definitive diagnosis of a disrupted tendon and can be used to distinguish between paratenonitis, tendinosis, and bursitis.
In most cases, nonsurgical treatment options will provide pain relief, although it may take a few months for symptoms to completely subside. Even with early treatment, the pain may last longer than 3 months. If you have had pain for several months before seeking treatment, it may take 6 months before treatment methods take effect. The first step in reducing pain is to decrease or even stop the activities that make the pain worse. If you regularly do high-impact exercises (such as running), switching to low-impact activities will put less stress on the Achilles tendon. Cross-training activities such as biking, elliptical exercise, and swimming are low-impact options to help you stay active. Placing ice on the most painful area of the Achilles tendon is helpful and can be done as needed throughout the day. This can be done for up to 20 minutes and should be stopped earlier if the skin becomes numb. A foam cup filled with water and then frozen creates a simple, reusable ice pack. After the water has frozen in the cup, tear off the rim of the cup. Then rub the ice on the Achilles tendon. With repeated use, a groove that fits the Achilles tendon will appear, creating a “custom-fit” ice pack. Drugs such as ibuprofen and naproxen reduce pain and swelling. They do not, however, reduce the thickening of the degenerated tendon. Using the medication for more than 1 month should be reviewed with your primary care doctor. The following exercise can help to strengthen the calf muscles and reduce stress on the Achilles tendon. Lean forward against a wall with one knee straight and the heel on the ground. Place the other leg in front, with the knee bent. To stretch the calf muscles and the heel cord, push your hips toward the wall in a controlled fashion. Hold the position for 10 seconds and relax. Repeat this exercise 20 times for each foot. A strong pull in the calf should be felt during the stretch. Physical therapy is very helpful in treating Achilles tendinitis. It has proven to work better for noninsertional tendinitis than for insertional tendinitis. Eccentric strengthening is defined as contracting (tightening) a muscle while it is getting longer. Eccentric strengthening exercises can cause damage to the Achilles tendon if they are not done correctly. At first, they should be performed under the supervision of a physical therapist. Once mastered with a therapist, the exercises can then be done at home. These exercises may cause some discomfort, however, it should not be unbearable. Stand at the edge of a stair, or a raised platform that is stable, with just the front half of your foot on the stair. This position will allow your heel to move up and down without hitting the stair. Care must be taken to ensure that you are balanced correctly to prevent falling and injury. Be sure to hold onto a railing to help you balance. Lift your heels off the ground then slowly lower your heels to the lowest point possible. Repeat this step 20 times. This exercise should be done in a slow, controlled fashion. Rapid movement can create the risk of damage to the tendon. As the pain improves, you can increase the difficulty level of the exercise by holding a small weight in each hand. This exercise is performed similarly to the bilateral heel drop, except that all your weight is focused on one leg. This should be done only after the bilateral heel drop has been mastered. Cortisone, a type of steroid, is a powerful anti-inflammatory medication. Cortisone injections into the Achilles tendon are rarely recommended because they can cause the tendon to rupture (tear).
Most people will improve with simple measures or physiotherapy. A small number continue to have major problems which interfere with their lifestyle. In this situation an operation may be considered. If an operation is being considered, the surgeon will interview you and examine you again and may want you to have further treatment before making a decision about an operation. Before undergoing Achilles tendonitis surgery, London based patients, and those who can travel, will be advised to undergo a scan, which will reveal whether there is a problem in the tendon which can be corrected by surgery. Patients will also have the opportunity to ask any questions and raise any concerns that they may have, so that they can proceed with the treatment with peace of mind.
While it may not be possible to prevent Achilles tendinitis, you can take measures to reduce your risk. Increase your activity level gradually. If you’re just beginning an exercise regimen, start slowly and gradually increase the duration and intensity of the training. Take it easy. Avoid activities that place excessive stress on your tendons, such as hill running. If you participate in a strenuous activity, warm up first by exercising at a slower pace. If you notice pain during a particular exercise, stop and rest. Choose your shoes carefully. The shoes you wear while exercising should provide adequate cushioning for your heel and should have a firm arch support to help reduce the tension in the Achilles tendon. Replace your worn-out shoes. If your shoes are in good condition but don’t support your feet, try arch supports in both shoes. Stretch daily. Take the time to stretch your calf muscles and Achilles tendon in the morning, before exercise and after exercise to maintain flexibility. This is especially important to avoid a recurrence of Achilles tendinitis. Strengthen your calf muscles. Strong calf muscles enable the calf and Achilles tendon to better handle the stresses they encounter with activity and exercise. Cross-train. Alternate high-impact activities, such as running and jumping, with low-impact activities, such as cycling and swimming.