Achilles tendinitis is an inflammation (swelling) of the tendon, which usually occurs as a result of overuse injury. Basketball players are the most susceptible to Achilles tendinitis because of the frequent jumping. Any activity requiring a constant pushing off the foot, such as running or dancing, may result in swelling of the tendon.
Poorly conditioned athletes are at the highest risk for developing Achilles tendonitis, also sometimes called Achilles tendinitis. Participating in activities that involve sudden stops and starts and repetitive jumping (e.g., basketball, tennis, dancing) increases the risk for the condition. It often develops following sudden changes in activity level, training on poor surfaces, or wearing inappropriate footwear. Achilles tendonitis may be caused by a single incident of overstressing the tendon, or it may result from a series of stresses that produce small tears over time (overuse). Patients who develop arthritis in the heel have an increased risk for developing Achilles tendonitis. This occurs more often in people who middle aged and older. The condition also may develop in people who exercise infrequently and in those who are just beginning an exercise program, because inactive muscles and tendons have little flexibility because of inactivity. It is important for people who are just starting to exercise to stretch properly, start slowly, and increase gradually. In some cases, a congenital (i.e., present at birth) condition causes Achilles tendonitis. Typically, this is due to abnormal rotation of the foot and leg (pronation), which causes the arch of the foot to flatten and the leg to twist more than normal.
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.
Studies such as x-rays and MRIs are not usually needed to make the diagnosis of tendonitis. While they are not needed for diagnosis of tendonitis, x-rays may be performed to ensure there is no other problem, such as a fracture, that could be causing the symptoms of pain and swelling. X-rays may show evidence of swelling around the tendon. MRIs are also good tests identify swelling, and will show evidence of tendonitis. However, these tests are not usually needed to confirm the diagnosis; MRIs are usually only performed if there is a suspicion of another problem that could be causing the symptoms. Once the diagnosis of tendonitis is confirmed, the next step is to proceed with appropriate treatment. Treatment depends on the specific type of tendonitis. Once the specific diagnosis is confirmed, the appropriate treatment of tendonitis can be initiated.
In most cases, nonsurgical treatment options will provide pain relief, although it may take a few months for symptoms to completely subside. Even with early treatment, the pain may last longer than 3 months. If you have had pain for several months before seeking treatment, it may take 6 months before treatment methods take effect. The first step in reducing pain is to decrease or even stop the activities that make the pain worse. If you regularly do high-impact exercises (such as running), switching to low-impact activities will put less stress on the Achilles tendon. Cross-training activities such as biking, elliptical exercise, and swimming are low-impact options to help you stay active. Placing ice on the most painful area of the Achilles tendon is helpful and can be done as needed throughout the day. This can be done for up to 20 minutes and should be stopped earlier if the skin becomes numb. A foam cup filled with water and then frozen creates a simple, reusable ice pack. After the water has frozen in the cup, tear off the rim of the cup. Then rub the ice on the Achilles tendon. With repeated use, a groove that fits the Achilles tendon will appear, creating a "custom-fit" ice pack. Drugs such as ibuprofen and naproxen reduce pain and swelling. They do not, however, reduce the thickening of the degenerated tendon. Using the medication for more than 1 month should be reviewed with your primary care doctor. The following exercise can help to strengthen the calf muscles and reduce stress on the Achilles tendon. Lean forward against a wall with one knee straight and the heel on the ground. Place the other leg in front, with the knee bent. To stretch the calf muscles and the heel cord, push your hips toward the wall in a controlled fashion. Hold the position for 10 seconds and relax. Repeat this exercise 20 times for each foot. A strong pull in the calf should be felt during the stretch. Physical therapy is very helpful in treating Achilles tendinitis. It has proven to work better for noninsertional tendinitis than for insertional tendinitis. Eccentric strengthening is defined as contracting (tightening) a muscle while it is getting longer. Eccentric strengthening exercises can cause damage to the Achilles tendon if they are not done correctly. At first, they should be performed under the supervision of a physical therapist. Once mastered with a therapist, the exercises can then be done at home. These exercises may cause some discomfort, however, it should not be unbearable. Stand at the edge of a stair, or a raised platform that is stable, with just the front half of your foot on the stair. This position will allow your heel to move up and down without hitting the stair. Care must be taken to ensure that you are balanced correctly to prevent falling and injury. Be sure to hold onto a railing to help you balance. Lift your heels off the ground then slowly lower your heels to the lowest point possible. Repeat this step 20 times. This exercise should be done in a slow, controlled fashion. Rapid movement can create the risk of damage to the tendon. As the pain improves, you can increase the difficulty level of the exercise by holding a small weight in each hand. This exercise is performed similarly to the bilateral heel drop, except that all your weight is focused on one leg. This should be done only after the bilateral heel drop has been mastered. Cortisone, a type of steroid, is a powerful anti-inflammatory medication. Cortisone injections into the Achilles tendon are rarely recommended because they can cause the tendon to rupture (tear).
For paratenonitis, a technique called brisement is an option. Local anesthetic is injected into the space between the tendon and its surrounding sheath to break up scar tissue. This can be beneficial in earlier stages of the problem 30 to 50 percent of the time, but may need to be repeated two to three times. Surgery consists of cutting out the surrounding thickened and scarred sheath. The tendon itself is also explored and any split tears within the tendon are repaired. Motion is started almost immediately to prevent repeat scarring of the tendon to the sheath and overlying soft tissue, and weight-bearing should follow as soon as pain and swelling permit, usually less than one to two weeks. Return to competitive activity takes three to six months. Since tendinosis involves changes in the substance of the tendon, brisement is of no benefit. Surgery consists of cutting out scar tissue and calcification deposits within the tendon. Abnormal tissue is excised until tissue with normal appearance appears. The tendon is then repaired with suture. In older patients or when more than 50 percent of the tendon is removed, one of the other tendons at the back of the ankle is transferred to the heel bone to assist the Achilles tendon with strength as well as provide better blood supply to this area.
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.