Whenever you walk, run, climb stairs, jump, or stand on your tip-toes, your Achilles tendon is doing its job. It’s the thickest tendon in your body. Yet with that distinction comes some vulnerability – Achilles tendinitis being a common, yet highly treatable, overuse injury for this body part.
The Achilles tendon is the band of tissue that connects the calf muscle at the back of the lower leg to the heel bone. Amazingly, it can receive a load stress of 3.9 times a person’s body weight during walking and 7.7 times your body weight when running. That’s a lot of stress to put on one tendon!
However, like anything – or anyone — under a lot of stress, sometimes it can become irritated and inflamed, or even snap. It’s this inflammation (and in some cases degeneration) that causes Achilles tendinitis, and the pain that comes with it. The swelling and discomfort of inflammation are a red flag to cease an activity and seek care.
Usually Achilles tendinitis is not related to a specific injury. Repetitive stress is the more typical cause. Other factors, such as a sudden increase in the intensity and frequency of athletic activity, having tight calf muscles, or bone spurs (extra bone growth where the tendon attaches to the heel), can make Achilles tendinitis more likely. If you’re a man and/or over age 50, you’re also more susceptible.
Common symptoms of Achilles tendinitis:
- 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
- Swelling that is present in your calf and/or heel 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.
Your orthopedic surgeon will physically examine your foot and lower leg. He or she may also order an x-ray to see whether any part of the Achilles tendon has calcified (hardened), or an MRI to determine the severity of damage and to plan surgery, if needed.
How is Achilles tendinitis treated?
Although Achilles tendinitis generally responds very well to non-surgical approaches, it can take a few months. Prepare to practice patience! If you’ve experienced pain for several months before seeking treatment, relief from your symptoms could take six months.
— Stopping or reducing activities that aggravate the pain and swelling is the first step. Switching to low-impact exercise such as such as biking, elliptical machines, and swimming can help you stay active while the tendon heals.
— Ice the most painful part of the Achilles tendon throughout the day.
— Over-the-counter drugs such as ibuprofen (Advil) and naproxen (Aleve) reduce pain and swelling. However, they do not reduce thickening of a degenerated tendon, and your doctor may limit their use due to long-term side effects.
— Spectrum’s highly experienced physical therapists can guide you safely through effective stretching and strengthening routines for your calf muscles.
— Supportive shoes and orthotics can help relieve pain from Achilles tendinitis. Shoes that are soft at the back of the heel are less irritating, and heel lifts can take some strain off the tendon.
Your orthopedic surgeon will help guide you through your options, depending on the severity of your tendinitis. Usually surgery will only be considered if the pain does not improve after six months of non-surgical methods.
If you’re into mythology, you may recall that Achilles was a Greek hero of the Trojan War. Incredibly strong, courageous, and loyal, he had a fatal weakness. As a baby his mother had dipped him in the river that granted immortality to the gods. But since she was holding him by the heel, that part of his body failed to acquire the magical protection – and was the target for the arrow that eventually killed him.
As mere mortals, all of our body parts are subject to wear and tear, injury, and disease. But we also have the advantage of modern medicine, surgery, and rehabilitation techniques to help us enjoy good health for as long as possible.
If you think you may have Achilles tendinitis, feel free to contact Spectrum Orthopaedics to schedule an appointment. Our expert care team members are ready to take care of you!
You can learn more about our foot and ankle services here.