Tendinitis is inflammation of a tendon. Thus, Achilles tendinitis is an inflammation of the Achilles tendon. The inflammation may be localized to the end of the tendon closest to the heel or may spread upward to affect even the muscles of the calf. Swelling often occurs and pain is felt upon contraction of the calf muscles. In severe cases, pain may be felt even at rest. Generally, Achilles tendinitis begins as a dull pain at the back of the lower leg just above the heel when pushing off the ground with the foot. Unless the activity is stopped, the condition rapidly gets worse until any activity requiring a push-off from the ground by the foot becomes quite painful and nearly impossible. If it is left untreated, it can develop into one of two more serious conditions – Achilles tendinosis and Insertional Calcific Tendinitis.
Tendinitis most often occurs when a tendon is over used. As the foot extends the Achilles tendon engages the calf muscles. The calf muscle generates force, which is transferred to the foot via this tendon. As this action repeats the tendon will endure large amounts of stress. An under-trained or inexperienced athlete is most likely to be affected by tendinitis since their body is not accustomed to the stress involved with athletics. Improper foot mechanics is another common cause of Achilles tendinitis. A properly functioning foot will distribute weight evenly across the foot. On the contrary, if the foot is experiencing improper mechanics, the weight of the body will not be evenly distributed. This can result in tendinitis, plantar fasciitis, calluses, bunions, neuromas and much more.
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.
On examination, an inflamed or partially torn Achilles tendon is tender when squeezed between the fingers. Complete tears are differentiated by sudden, severe pain and inability to walk on the extremity. A palpable defect along the course of the tendon. A positive Thompson test (while the patient lies prone on the examination table, the examiner squeezes the calf muscle; this maneuver by the examiner does not cause the normally expected plantar flexion of the foot).
Most cases are successfully treated non-surgically although this is time-consuming and frustrating for active patients. Treatment is less likely to be successful if symptoms have been present more than six months. Nonsurgical management includes nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medications, rest, immobilization, limitation of activity, ice, contrast baths, stretching and heel lifts. If symptoms fail to resolve after two to three months, a formal physical therapy program may be of benefit. An arch support may help if there is an associated flatfoot. A cast or brace to completely rest this area may be necessary. Extracorporeal shockwave therapy and platelet-rich plasma injections? have variable reports of success. Nitroglycerin medication applied to the overlying skin may be of benefit.
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.
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.