The Achilles tendon connects the calf muscle to the back of the heel. Injuries to the Achilles tendon are common, as it is in constant use during walking and running. These injuries, known as Achilles tendinitis, are usually the result of overuse damage and minor tears that have accumulated over years. Your risk of developing Achilles tendinitis increases with age and activity level. Many athletes develop Achilles tendinitis. The tendon may be injured several inches away from where it attaches to the foot or at the point of attachment. An injury at the point of attachment is called Achilles enthesopathy. We recommend a combination of treatments over a period of months that may include wearing supportive shoes or orthotic devices, performing stretching exercises, and icing the affected area. If these treatments are not effective, or if the tendon is completely torn, we may recommend surgery.
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.
Achilles tendonitis is an injury that occurs when your Achilles tendon — the large band of tissues connecting the muscles in the back of your lower leg to your heel bone — becomes inflamed or irritated. The signs and symptoms of Achilles tendonitis often develop gradually. You’ll feel pain and stiffness in your Achilles, especially when you first get out of bed. The pain lessens as you warm up, and may even disappear as you continue running. Once you stop, the pain returns and may feel even worse. You may also notice a crackling or creaking sound when you touch or move your Achilles tendon.
On examination, an inflamed or partially torn Achilles tendon is tender when squeezed between the fingers. Complete tears are differentiated by sudden, severe pain and inability to walk on the extremity. A palpable defect along the course of the tendon. A positive Thompson test (while the patient lies prone on the examination table, the examiner squeezes the calf muscle; this maneuver by the examiner does not cause the normally expected plantar flexion of the foot).
The main treatments for Achilles tendinitis do not involve surgery. It is important to remember that it may take at least 2 to 3 months for the pain to go away. Try putting ice over the Achilles tendon for 15 to 20 minutes, two to three times per day. Remove the ice if the area gets numb. Changes in activity may help manage the symptoms. Decrease or stop any activity that causes you pain. Run or walk on smoother and softer surfaces. Switch to biking, swimming, or other activities that put less stress on the Achilles tendon. Your health care provider or physical therapist can show you stretching exercises for the Achilles tendon. They may also suggest the following changes in your footwear, a brace or boot or cast to keep the heel and tendon still and allow the swelling to go down, heel lifts placed in the shoe under the heel, shoes that are softer in the areas over and under the heel cushion. Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as aspirin and ibuprofen can help with pain or swelling. Talk with your health care provider. If these treatments do not improve symptoms, you may need surgery to remove inflamed tissue and abnormal areas of the tendon. Surgery also can be used to remove the bone spur that is irritating the tendon. Extracorporeal shock wave therapy (ESWT) may be an alternative to surgery for people who have not responded to other treatments. This treatment uses low-dose sound waves.
Surgery usually isn’t needed to treat Achilles tendinopathy. But in rare cases, someone might consider surgery when rubbing between the tendon and the tissue covering the tendon (tendon sheath) causes the sheath to become thick and fibrous. Surgery can be done to remove the fibrous tissue and repair any small tendon tears. This may also help prevent an Achilles tendon rupture.
A 2014 study looked at the effect of using foot orthotics on the Achilles tendon. The researchers found that running with foot orthotics resulted in a significant decrease in Achilles tendon load compared to running without orthotics. This study indicates that foot orthoses may act to reduce the incidence of chronic Achilles tendon pathologies in runners by reducing stress on the Achilles tendon1. Orthotics seem to reduce load on the Achilles tendon by reducing excessive pronation,