Typically an overuse injury, Achilles tendinitis affects the connective tissue between the calf and the heel. When you walk, run or otherwise use your leg to push your body upward, the Achilles tendon is engaged. Using the tendon frequently and with high intensity often results in tendinitis — a swollen Achilles tendon that makes it difficult and sometimes painful to continue high-impact activities.
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.
Achilles tendonitis typically starts off as a dull stiffness in the tendon, which gradually goes away as the area gets warmed up. It may get worse with faster running, uphill running, or when wearing spikes and other low-heeled running shoes. If you continue to train on it, the tendon will hurt more sharply and more often, eventually impeding your ability even to jog lightly. About two-thirds of Achilles tendonitis cases occur at the ?midpoint? of the tendon, a few inches above the heel. The rest are mostly cases of ?insertional? Achilles tendonitis, which occurs within an inch or so of the heelbone. Insertional Achilles tendonitis tends to be more difficult to get rid of, often because the bursa, a small fluid-filled sac right behind the tendon, can become irritated as well.
A thorough subjective and objective examination from a physiotherapist is usually sufficient to diagnose an Achilles injury such as Achilles tendonitis. Occasionally, further investigations such as an Ultrasound, X-ray or MRI scan may be required to assist with diagnosis and assess the severity of the condition.
As with most soft tissue injuries the initial treatment is RICE – Rest, Ice, Compression and Elevation. In the early phase you?ll be unable to walk without a limp, so your Achilles tendon needs some active rest from weight-bearing loads. You may need to be non or partial-weight-bearing, utilise crutches, a wedged achilles walking boot or heel wedges to temporarily relieve some of the pressure on the Achilles tendon. Your physiotherapist will advise you on what they feel is best for you. Ice is a simple and effective modality to reduce your pain and swelling. Please apply for 20-30 minutes each 2 to 4 hours during the initial phase or when you notice that your injury is warm or hot. Anti-inflammatory medication (if tolerated) and natural substances eg arnica may help reduce your pain and swelling. However, it is best to avoid anti-inflammatory drugs during the initial 48 to 72 hours when they may encourage additional bleeding. Most people can tolerate paracetamol as a pain reducing medication. As you improve a kinesio style supportive taping will help to both support the injured soft tissue.
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.
Although Achilles tendinitis cannot be completely prevented, the risk of developing it can be lowered. Being aware of the possible causes does help, but the risk can be greatly reduced by taking the following precautions. Getting a variety of exercise – alternating between high-impact exercises (e.g. running) and low-impact exercise (e.g. swimming) can help, as it means there are days when the Achilles tendon is under less tension. Limit certain exercises – doing too much hill running, for example, can put excessive strain on the Achilles tendon. Wearing the correct shoes and replacing them when worn – making sure they support the arch and protect the heel will create less tension in the tendon. Using arch supports inside the shoe, if the shoe is in good condition but doesn’t provide the required arch support this is a cheaper (and possibly more effective) alternative to replacing the shoe completely. Stretching, doing this before and after exercising helps to keep the Achilles tendon flexible, which means less chance of tendinitis developing. There is no harm in stretching every day (even on days of rest), as this will only further improve flexibility. Gradually increasing the intensity of a workout – Achilles tendinitis can occur when the tendon is suddenly put under too much strain, warming up and increasing the level of activity gradually gives your muscles time to loosen up and puts less pressure on the tendon.