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Achilles tendonitis is a relatively common condition characterized by tissue damage and pain in the Achilles tendon. The muscle group at the back of the lower leg is commonly called the calf. The calf comprises of 2 major muscles, one of which originates from above the knee joint (gastrocnemius), the other of which originates from below the knee joint (soleus). Both of these muscles insert into the heel bone via the Achilles tendon. During contraction of the calf, tension is placed through the Achilles tendon. When this tension is excessive due to too much repetition or high force, damage to the tendon occurs. Achilles tendonitis is a condition whereby there is damage to the tendon with subsequent degeneration and inflammation. This may occur traumatically due to a high force going through the tendon beyond what it can withstand or, more commonly, due to gradual wear and tear associated with overuse.
Achilles tendinitis can be caused by overly tight calf muscles, excessive running up hill or down hill, a sudden increase in the amount of exercise, e.g. running for a longer distance, wearing ill-fitting running shoes, such as those with soles that are too stiff, or wearing high heels regularly, or changing between high heels all day and flat shoes or low running shoes in the evening. Overuse is common in walkers, runners, dancers and other athletes who do a lot of jumping and sudden starts/stops, which exert a lot of stress on the Achilles tendon. Continuing to stress an inflamed Achilles tendon can cause rupture of the tendon – it snaps, often with a distinctive popping sound. A ruptured Achilles tendon makes it virtually impossible to walk. An Achilles tendon rupture is usually treated by surgical repair or wearing a cast.
Common symptoms of Achilles tendinitis include, pain and stiffness along the Achilles tendon in the morning, pain along the tendon or back of the heel that worsens with activity, Severe pain the day after exercising, thickening of the tendon, bone spur (insertional tendinitis) swelling that is present all the time and gets worse throughout the day with activity, If you have experienced a sudden “pop” in the back of your calf or heel, you may have ruptured (torn) your Achilles tendon. See your doctor immediately if you think you may have torn your tendon.
During the physical exam, your doctor will gently press on the affected area to determine the location of pain, tenderness or swelling. He or she will also evaluate the flexibility, alignment, range of motion and reflexes of your foot and ankle. Your doctor may order one or more of the following tests to assess your condition, X-rays. While X-rays can’t visualize soft tissues such as tendons, they may help rule out other conditions that can cause similar symptoms. Ultrasound. This device uses sound waves to visualize soft tissues like tendons. Ultrasound can also produce real-time images of the Achilles tendon in motion. Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). Using radio waves and a very strong magnet, MRI machines can produce very detailed images of the Achilles tendon.
Treatment options might include anti-inflammatory medication such as ibuprofen which might help with acute achilles inflammation and pain but has not been proven to be beneficial long term and may even inhibit healing. If the injury is severe then a plaster cast might be applied to immobilize the tendon. Use of electrotherapy such as ultrasound treatment, laser therapy and extracorporeal shock wave therapy (ESWT) may be beneficial in reducing pain and encouraging healing. Applying sports massage techniques can mobilze the tissues or the tendon itself and help stretch the calf muscles. Some might give a steroid injection however an injection directly into the tendon is not recommended. Some specialists believe this can increase the risk of a total rupture of the tendon in future. One of the most effective forms of treatment for achilles tendonitis is a full rehabilitation program consisting of eccentric strengthening exercises. There is now considerable evidence suggesting the effectiveness of slow eccentric rehabilitation exercises for curing achilles tendon pain.
Most people will improve with simple measures or physiotherapy. A small number continue to have major problems which interfere with their lifestyle. In this situation an operation may be considered. If an operation is being considered, the surgeon will interview you and examine you again and may want you to have further treatment before making a decision about an operation. Before undergoing Achilles tendonitis surgery, London based patients, and those who can travel, will be advised to undergo a scan, which will reveal whether there is a problem in the tendon which can be corrected by surgery. Patients will also have the opportunity to ask any questions and raise any concerns that they may have, so that they can proceed with the treatment with peace of mind.
Achilles tendinitis cannot always be prevented but the following tips will help you reduce your risk. If you are new to a sport, gradually ramp up your activity level to your desired intensity and duration. If you experience pain while exercising, stop. Avoid strenuous activity that puts excessive stress on your Achilles tendon. If you have a demanding workout planned, warm up slowly and thoroughly. Always exercise in shoes that are in good condition and appropriate for your activity or sport. Be sure to stretch your calf muscles and Achilles tendon before and after working out. If you suffer from Achilles tendinitis make sure you treat it properly and promptly. If self-care techniques don?t work, don?t delay. Book a consultation with a foot care expert or you may find yourself sidelined from your favourite sports and activities.