Achilles tendonitis is a relatively common condition characterized by tissue damage and pain in the Achilles tendon. The muscle group at the back of the lower leg is commonly called the calf. The calf comprises of 2 major muscles, one of which originates from above the knee joint (gastrocnemius), the other of which originates from below the knee joint (soleus). Both of these muscles insert into the heel bone via the Achilles tendon. During contraction of the calf, tension is placed through the Achilles tendon. When this tension is excessive due to too much repetition or high force, damage to the tendon occurs. Achilles tendonitis is a condition whereby there is damage to the tendon with subsequent degeneration and inflammation. This may occur traumatically due to a high force going through the tendon beyond what it can withstand or, more commonly, due to gradual wear and tear associated with overuse.
There are several factors that can contribute to achilles tendonitis. First, you should know that the biggest contributor to chronic achilles tendonitis is ignoring pain in your achilles tendon and running through the pain of early achilles tendonitis. If your achilles tendon is getting sore it is time to pay attention to it, immediately. Sudden increases in training can contribute to achilles tendonitis. Excessive hill running or a sudden addition of hills and speed work can also contribute to this problem. Two sole construction flaws can also aggravate achilles tendonitis. The first is a sole that is too stiff, especially at the ball of the foot. (In case you are having difficulty locating the “ball” of your foot, I mean the part where the toes join the foot and at which the foot bends) If this area is stiff than the “lever arm” of the foot is longer and the achilles tendon will be under increased tension and the calf muscles must work harder to lift the heel off the ground. The second contributing shoe design factor which may lead to continuing achilles tendon problem is excessive heel cushioning. Air filled heels, while supposedly are now more resistant to deformation and leaks are not good for a sore achilles tendon. The reason for this is quite simple. If you are wearing a shoe that is designed to give great heel shock absorption what frequently happens is that after heel contact, the heel continues to sink lower while the shoe is absorbing the shock. This further stretches the achilles tendon, at a time when the leg and body are moving forward over the foot. Change your shoes to one without this “feature”. Of course another major factor is excessive tightness of the posterior leg muscles, the calf muscles and the hamstrings may contribute to prolonged achilles tendonitis. Gentle calf stretching should be performed preventatively. During a bout of acute achilles tendonitis, however, overly exuberant stretching should not be performed.
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.
If you think you might have Achilles tendonitis, check in with your doctor before it gets any worse. Your doc will ask about the activities you’ve been doing and will examine your leg, foot, ankle, and knee for range of motion. If your pain is more severe, the doctor may also make sure you haven’t ruptured (torn) your Achilles tendon. To check this, the doc might have you lie face down and bend your knee while he or she presses on your calf muscles to see if your foot flexes. Any flexing of the foot means the tendon is at least partly intact. It’s possible that the doctor might also order an X-ray or MRI scan of your foot and leg to check for fractures, partial tears of the tendon, or signs of a condition that might get worse. Foot and ankle pain also might be a sign of other overuse injuries that can cause foot and heel pain, like plantar fasciitis and Sever’s disease. If you also have any problems like these, they also need to be treated.
Initial treatment consists of medication and ice to relieve the pain, stretching and strengthening exercises, and modification of the activity that initially caused the problem. These all can be carried out at home, although referral to a physical therapist or athletic trainer for further evaluation and treatment may be helpful. Occasionally a walking boot or cast may be recommended to immobilize the tendon, allowing the inflammation to settle down. For less severe cases or after immobilization, a heel lift may be prescribed to reduce stress to the tendon. This may be followed by an elastic bandage wrap of the ankle and Achilles tendon. Orthotics (arch supports) may be prescribed or recommended by your physician. Surgery to remove the inflamed tendon lining or degenerated tendon tissue is rarely necessary and has shown less than predictable results.
As with any surgery there are risks to every procedure depending on a lot of factors, including your age, the severity of your injury and your level of health going into the procedure. It is always best to discuss all possible risks and complications with your doctor, orthopaedic specialist and/or surgeon before the procedure. It’s important to be aware of the risks you may face with any procedure intended to fix or relieve pain from your Achilles tendon injury.
If you’re just getting started with your training, be sure to stretch after running, and start slowly, increasing your mileage by no more than 10% per week. Strengthen your calf muscles with exercises such as toe raises. Work low-impact cross-training activities, such as cycling and swimming, into your training.