Coping With Achilles Tendon Pain

Overview

Achilles TendinitisTypically 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.

Causes

Tight or tired calf muscles, which transfer too much of the force associated with running onto the Achilles tendon. Not stretching the calves properly or a rapid increase in intensity and frequency of sport training can make calf muscles fatigued. Activities which place a lot of stress on the achilles tendon, such as hill running and sprint training, can also cause Achilles Tendinitis. Runners who overpronate (roll too far inward on their feet during impact) are most susceptible to Achilles Tendinitis. Runners with flat feet are susceptible to Achilles Tendinitis because flat feet cause a 'wringing out' effect on the achilles tendon during running. High arched feet usually absorb less shock from the impact of running so that shock is transferred to the Achilles tendon. Use of inappropriate footwear when playing sport or running e.g., sandals, can also put an extra load on the Achilles tendon. Shoes are now available that have been designed for individual sports and provide cushioning to absorb the shock of impact and support for the foot during forceful movements. Training on hard surfaces e.g., concrete, also increases the risk of Achilles Tendinitis. Landing heavily or continuously on a hard surface can send a shock through the body which is partly absorbed by the Achilles tendon. A soft surface like grass turf helps to lessen the shock of the impact by absorbing some of the force of the feet landing heavily on the ground after a jump or during a running motion.

Symptoms

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.

Diagnosis

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.

Nonsurgical Treatment

Treatment for achilles tendonitis is based around initially reducing pain and inflammation, stretching the muscles out and a gradual return to activity. No one single approach may cure achilles tendonitis, particularly a chronic condition but a combination of treatment approaches and patience will work best. It is essential the correct treatment is started as soon as possible in the acute stage to avoid the injury becoming chronic. Acute achilles tendonitis requires rest. Continuing to train on a painful achilles tendon could lead to the injury becoming chronic and more difficult to treat. Applying ice or cold therapy as soon as possible to a painful achilles tendon will reduce pain and inflammation. After the first 24 to 48 hours alternating hot and cold or just heat may be more beneficial. Tendons work better when they are warm but if they are painful then rest and ice. Wear a heel pad to raise the heel and shorten the calf muscles which in turn reduces some of the strain on the achilles tendon. This should only be a temporary measure while the achilles tendon is healing. An achilles tendon taping technique can aid rest by supporting the tendon with elastic bandages. This is an excellent way of taking the load off the tendon if you have to walk around on your feet as well as protecting the tendon when returning to full fitness. Achilles tendon exercisesMake sure you have the right running shoes for your foot type and the sport. If you are a runner that over-pronates then a motion control or support running shoe may be needed. Visit a specialist running shop for advice. In the later stages apply heat, especially before exercise. The tendon will perform better when warm. Finish with cold after training to reduce any inflammation.

Achilles Tendon

Surgical Treatment

If non-surgical treatment fails to cure the condition then surgery can be considered. This is more likely to be the case if the pain has been present for six months or more. The nature of the surgery depends if you have insertional, or non-insertional disease. In non-insertional tendonosis the damaged tendon is thinned and cleaned. The damage is then repaired. If there is extensive damage one of the tendons which moves your big toe (the flexor hallucis longus) may be used to reinforce the damaged Achilles tendon. In insertional tendonosis there is often rubbing of the tendon by a prominent part of the heel bone. This bone is removed. In removing the bone the attachment of the tendon to the bone may be weakened. In these cases the attachment of the tendon to the bone may need to be reinforced with sutures and bone anchors.

Prevention

Stay in good shape year-round and try to keep your muscles as strong as they can be. Strong, flexible muscles work more efficiently and put less stress on your tendon. Increase the intensity and length of your exercise sessions gradually. This is especially important if you've been inactive for a while or you're new to a sport. Always warm up before you go for a run or play a sport. If your muscles are tight, your Achilles tendons have to work harder to compensate. Stretch it out. Stretch your legs, especially your calves, hamstrings, quadriceps, and thigh muscles - these muscles help stabilize your knee while running. Get shoes that fit properly and are designed for your sport. If you're a jogger, go to a running specialty store and have a trained professional help you select shoes that match your foot type and offer plenty of support. Replace your shoes before they become worn out. Try to run on softer surfaces like grass, dirt trails, or synthetic tracks. Hard surfaces like concrete or asphalt can put extra pressure on the joints. Also avoid running up or down hills as much as possible. Vary your exercise routine. Work different muscle groups to keep yourself in good overall shape and keep individual muscles from getting overused. If you notice any symptoms of Achilles tendonitis, stop running or doing activities that put stress on your feet. Wait until all the pain is gone or you have been cleared to start participating again by a doctor.

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