The Achilles tendon attaches the calf muscle to the heel bone. Achilles tendonitis is a repetitive strain (overuse) injury involving lower leg muscles and tendons at the point where they attach to the bone, resulting in pain at the back of the ankle. Chronic overuse can lead to small tears within the tendon causing long-term weakening, making the tendon susceptible to rupture, which could result in a need for surgery.
Excessive exercise is a common cause of Achilles tendonitis. This is particularly true for athletes. However, factors unrelated to exercise may also contribute to risk. Rheumatoid arthritis and infection are both correlated with tendonitis. In general, any repeated activity that strains the Achilles tendon can contribute to this problem. Here are a few possible causes, jumping into an exercise routine without a proper warm-up, straining calf muscles during repeated exercise or physical activity, playing sports such as tennis that require quick stops and changes of direction, wearing old or ill-fitting shoes, wearing high heels every day.
Symptoms vary because you can injure various areas of the muscle-tendon complex. The pain may be an acute or chronic sharp, stabbing, piercing, shooting, burning or aching. It is often most noticeable immediately after getting out of bed in the morning, or after periods of inactivity, like sitting down for lunch. After a couple minutes of walking around, it will often then settle down somewhat, before becoming symptomatic again after excessive time standing or walking. But regardless of how the pain is perceived, Achilles tendon pain should not be left untreated due to the danger that the tendon can become weak, frayed, thickened, and eventually it may rupture.
The doctor will perform a physical exam. The doctor will look for tenderness along the tendon and pain in the area of the tendon when you stand on your toes. X-rays can help diagnose bone problems. An MRI scan may be done if your doctor is thinking about surgery or is worried about the tear in the Achilles tendon.
Treatment will depend on the severity of the injury. In general terms, the longer the symptoms are present before treatment begins, the longer the timeframe until complete recovery is achieved. Complete recovery can take between three and nine months. Initial treatment of Achilles tendonitis includes, Rest, to avoid further injury to the area. Ice, to reduce inflammation, Elevation, to reduce swelling. Bandaging or strapping, to support the area and restrict movement of the tendon. Anti-inflammatory medications to reduce pain and inflammation. (Cortisone (steroid) injections to reduce inflammation are not usually recommended as they may weaken the tendon and increase the risk of rupture). Other treatments include, Physiotherapy, Physiotherapy plays an important role in the treatment of Achilles tendonitis. This generally focuses on two main areas – treatment and rehabilitation. Treatment may involve such techniques as massage, ultrasound, acupuncture and gentle stretching. Rehabilitation involves the development of an individualised recovery programme, the most important aspect of which is strengthening. Strengthening of the muscles surrounding the Achilles tendon helps to promote healing in the tendon itself. Strengthening is achieved through the use of specific exercises, which will be taught by the physiotherapist. One such exercise is eccentric loading, which involves contracting the calf muscle while it is being stretched. It is common for the rehabilitation programme to take up to three months. Podiatry, including gait analysis and the fitting of orthotic devices to support the foot and reduce stress on the tendon, may be recommended. For cases of Achilles tendonitis that do not respond to initial treatment, casting or splinting of the affected foot may be recommended to allow it to rest completely.
Surgery is an option of last resort. However, if friction between the tendon and its covering sheath makes the sheath thick and fibrous, surgery to remove the fibrous tissue and repair any tears may be the best treatment option.
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.