Achilles tendinitis can be a very crippling issue for runners – simply because the pain is enough to discourage loading of the foot. It can also be a tricky condition to treat because the tendon is not as heavily vascularized (i.e. more blood flow) as muscle, and therefore lacks healing potential. It is highly recommended that you see a physical therapist as soon as you experience acute symptoms, so chronic tendonosis (which is longer termed and harder to treat) does not set in.
The calf is under a lot of strain when running: it is not only put on stretch during landing of the foot, but it also has to produce the tension needed to support body weight and absorb the shock of landing. This is what is called an ?eccentric load?. Excessive eccentric loading – either by way of a dramatic increase in mileage, or excessive hill running, or faulty running posture – could very well be the cause of a runner?s achilles tendinitis. The calf strain translates downward into the achilles tendon where it attaches to the heel, and inflammation ensues. Inflammation then causes scarring and fibrosis of tissues, which in turn inflicts pain upon stretching or use. Risk factors for Achilles tendinitis also include spending prolonged amounts of time standing or walking.
Most cases of Achilles tendonitis start out slowly, with very little pain, and then grow worse over time. Some of the more common symptoms include mild pain or an ache above the heel and in the lower leg, especially after running or doing other physical activities, pain that gets worse when walking uphill, climbing stairs, or taking part in intense or prolonged exercise, stiffness and tenderness in the heel, especially in the morning, that gradually goes away, swelling or hard knots of tissue in the Achilles tendon, a creaking or crackling sound when moving the ankle or pressing on the Achilles tendon, weakness in the affected leg.
Examination of the achilles tendon is inspection for muscle atrophy, swelling, asymmetry, joint effusions and erythema. Atrophy is an important clue to the duration of the tendinopathy and it is often present with chronic conditions. Swelling, asymmetry and erythema in pathologic tendons are often observed in the examination. Joint effusions are uncommon with tendinopathy and suggest the possibility of intra-articular pathology. Range of motion testing, strength and flexibility are often limited on the side of the tendinopathy. Palpation tends to elicit well-localized tenderness that is similar in quality and location to the pain experienced during activity. Physical examinations of the Achilles tendon often reveals palpable nodules and thickening. Anatomic deformities, such as forefoot and heel varus and excessive pes planus or foot pronation, should receive special attention. These anatomic deformities are often associated with this problem. In case extra research is wanted, an echography is the first choice of examination when there is a suspicion of tendinosis. Imaging studies are not necessary to diagnose achilles tendonitis, but may be useful with differential diagnosis. Ultrasound is the imaging modality of first choice as it provides a clear indication of tendon width, changes of water content within the tendon and collagen integrity, as well as bursal swelling. MRI may be indicated if diagnosis is unclear or symptoms are atypical. MRI may show increased signal within the Achilles.
Massage therapy improves blood flow to the muscles and tissues of the affected area while increasing range of motion and can prevent recurring injury. The healing process can be quickened using ultrasound heat therapy to improve blood flow to the affected area. Wearing a night brace keeps the leg flexed, preventing stiffening of the tendon, which would impair healing. Stretching exercises increase flexibility and allow the tendon to heal without shortening, a deformity resulting in chronic pain. Persistent Achilles pain may warrant the use of a cast or walking boot to be worn for 4-6 weeks stabilizing the tendon so it can heal. After removal of the cast or boot, physical therapy will be ordered to increase functionality of the affected limb. To reduce chronic inflammation of the tendon, corticosteroid injections may be prescribed. It?s important to note that this corticosteroid treatment increases the risk of tendon rupture. Ultrasound imaging may be used by the physician administering the steroid injection, in order to help visualize the affected area. When all other therapies have failed to or tendon rupture occurs, surgical intervention and repair of the muscles and tendons is the last treatment option.
Your doctor may recommend surgery if, after around six months, other treatments haven?t worked and your symptoms are having an impact on your day-to-day life. Surgery involves removing damaged areas of your tendon and repairing them.
As with all injuries, prevention is your best defense especially with injuries that are as painful and inconvenient as Achilles tendonitis. Options for how to prevent Achilles tendonitis include, stretching- Stretching properly, starting slowly, and increasing gradually will be critical if you want to avoid Achilles tendonitis. To help maintain flexibility in the ankle joint, begin each day with a series of stretches and be certain to stretch prior to, and after, any exercise or excessive physical activity. Orthotics and Heel Support- Bio-mechanically engineered inserts and heel cups can be placed in your shoes to correct misalignments or bolster the support of your foot and are available without a prescription. The temporary heel padding that these provide reduces the length that the Achilles tendon stretches each time you step, making it more comfortable to go about your daily routine. Proper Footwear- Low-heeled shoes with good arch support and shock absorption are best for the health of your foot. Look into heel wedges and other shoe inserts to make sure that your everyday foot mechanics are operating under ideal conditions.