Achilles tendinitis is one of the more common causes of heel pain and many people describe it as pain in the back of the heel. Since this condition is a form of tendinitis, patients mostly notice that the back of their heel is inflamed. The Achilles tendon is the largest tendon in your body. It is also one of the most important and most used parts of the body. It is essential for walking, running, jumping or even just an extension of the foot. It is for this reason that Achilles tendinitis can affect anyone who is constantly putting stress on his or her foot. Athletes are particularly at risk.
Short of a trauma, the primary cause of Achilles tendonitis is when the calf muscle is so tight that the heel is unable to come down to the ground placing extreme stress on the Achilles tendon at the insertion. Keep in mind that the calf muscle is designed to contract up, lifting the heel bone off the ground, propelling you forwards to the front of the foot for push off. When the calf is so tight that the heel is prevented from coming down on the ground there will be stress on the tendon and the foot will over pronate causing the Achilles tendon to twist, adding to the stress on the insertion. Improper treatment may lead to a more severe injury, such as a rupture or chronic weakening, which may require surgery.
Common symptoms of Achilles tendinitis include weakness in the leg, slight pain above the heel in the lower leg after activity, feeling of stiffness in the leg that usually appears in the morning and lessens throughout the day, bad pain the day after exercising, pain as you climb stairs or go uphill, swelling in the area of the Achilles tendon, creaking or cracking noise when you press on the Achilles tendon.
During the physical exam, your doctor will gently press on the affected area to determine the location of pain, tenderness or swelling. He or she will also evaluate the flexibility, alignment, range of motion and reflexes of your foot and ankle. Your doctor may order one or more of the following tests to assess your condition, X-rays. While X-rays can’t visualize soft tissues such as tendons, they may help rule out other conditions that can cause similar symptoms. Ultrasound. This device uses sound waves to visualize soft tissues like tendons. Ultrasound can also produce real-time images of the Achilles tendon in motion. Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). Using radio waves and a very strong magnet, MRI machines can produce very detailed images of the Achilles tendon.
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.
Around 1 in 4 people who have persisting pain due to Achilles tendinopathy has surgery to treat the condition. Most people have a good result from surgery and their pain is relieved. Surgery involves either of the following, removing nodules or adhesions (parts of the fibres of the tendon that have stuck together) that have developed within the damaged tendon. Making a lengthways cut in the tendon to help to stimulate and encourage tendon healing. Complications from surgery are not common but, if they do occur, can include problems with wound healing.
Your podiatrist will work with you to decrease your chances of re-developing tendinitis. He or she may create custom orthotics to help control the motion of your feet. He or she may also recommend certain stretches or exercises to increase the tendon’s elasticity and strengthen the muscles attached to the tendon. Gradually increasing your activity level with an appropriate training schedule-building up to a 5K run, for instance, instead of simply tackling the whole course the first day-can also help prevent tendinitis.