The Achilles tendon attaches the calf muscle to the heel bone. Jumping, climbing and strenuous exercise can strain the tendon and calf muscle, which can cause the type of inflammation known as tendinitis. This injury can be mild enough that it can be treated by over-the-counter medications or so severe that it must be repaired surgically. Chronic tendinitis can cause microscopic tears in the muscle which can weaken the tendon and increase the risk for tear or rupture. Symptoms usually include pain and swelling near the ankle. Pain may lead to weakness in the area that increases with walking and running. Stiffness in the tendon may be worse in the morning.
There are hundreds of tendons scattered throughout our body, but it tends to be a small handful of specific tendons that cause problems. These tendons usually have an area of poor blood supply that leads to tissue damage and poor healing response. This area of a tendon that is prone to injury is called a “watershed zone,” an area when the blood supply to the tendon is weakest. In these watershed zones, they body has a hard time delivering oxygen and nutrients necessary for tendon healing, that’s why we see common tendon problems in the same parts of the body. Tendonitis is most often an overuse injury. Often people begin a new activity or exercise that causes the tendon to become irritated. Tendon problems are most common in the 40-60 year old age range. Tendons are not as elastic and forgiving as in younger individuals, yet bodies are still exerting with the same force. Occasionally, there is an anatomical cause for tendonitis. If the tendon does not have a smooth path to glide along, it will be more likely to become irritated and inflamed. In these unusual situations, surgical treatment may be necessary to realign the tendon.
The main complaint associated with Achilles tendonitis is pain behind the heel. The pain is often most prominent in an area about 2-4 centimeters above where the tendon attaches to the heel. In this location, called the watershed zone of the tendon, the blood supply to the tendon makes this area particularly susceptible. Patients with Achilles tendonitis usually experience the most significant pain after periods of inactivity. Therefore patients tend to experience pain after first walking in the morning and when getting up after sitting for long periods of time. Patients will also experience pain while participating in activities, such as when running or jumping. Achilles tendonitis pain associated with exercise is most significant when pushing off or jumping.
In diagnosing Achilles tendonitis or tendonosis, the surgeon will examine the patient?s foot and ankle and evaluate the range of motion and condition of the tendon. The extent of the condition can be further assessed with x-rays or other imaging modalities.
Treatment of Achilles tendonitis begins with resting the tendon to allow the inflammation to settle down. In more serious situations, adequate rest may require crutches or immobilization of the ankle. Learn more about different treatments for Achilles tendonitis, including ice, medications, injections, and surgery.
In most surgeries, damaged tissue is cleaned out before surgeons make the necessary repairs. However, a new minimally-invasive surgery to repair a torn Achilles tendon actually uses the damaged tissue to help repair the tear. The percutaneous Achilles repair system, or PARS technique, enables surgeons to better repair a torn Achilles tendon through a smaller incision. This procedure was recently performed at Houston Methodist Hospital to treat an NFL cornerback, getting him back on field for this season.
Warm up slowly by running at least one minute per mile slower than your usual pace for the first mile. Running backwards during your first mile is also a very effective way to warm up the Achilles, because doing so produces a gentle eccentric load that acts to strengthen the tendon. Runners should also avoid making sudden changes in mileage, and they should be particularly careful when wearing racing flats, as these shoes produce very rapid rates of pronation that increase the risk of Achilles tendon injury. If you have a tendency to be stiff, spend extra time stretching. If you?re overly flexible, perform eccentric load exercises preventively. Lastly, it is always important to control biomechanical alignment issues, either with proper running shoes and if necessary, stock or custom orthotics.