A tendon is a tough yet flexible band of fibrous tissue. The tendon is the structure in your body that connects your muscles to the bones. The skeletal muscles in your body are responsible for moving your bones, thus enabling you to walk, jump, lift, and move in many ways. When a muscle contracts it pulls on a bone to cause movements. The structure that transmits the force of the muscle contraction to the bone is called a tendon. Tendons come in many shapes and sizes. Some are very small, like the ones that cause movements of your fingers, and some are much larger, such as your Achilles tendon in your heel. When functioning normally, these tendons glide easily and smoothly as the muscle contracts. Sometimes the tendons become inflamed for a variety of reasons, and the action of pulling the muscle becomes irritating. If the normal smooth gliding motion of your tendon is impaired, the tendon will become inflamed and movement will become painful. This is called tendonitis, and literally means inflammation of the tendon.
Achilles tendinitis usually results from overuse and not a specific injury or trauma. When the body is subject to repetitive stress, the Achilles tendon is more prone to become inflamed. Other factors may cause Achilles tendinitis, such as, Sudden increase in physical activity, which can be related to distance, speed or hills, without giving yourself adequate time to adjust to the heightened activity. With running up hills, the Achilles tendon has to stretch more for each stride, which creates rapid fatigue. Inadequate footwear or training surface. High heels may cause a problem, because the Achilles tendon and calf muscles are shortened. While exercising in flat, athletic shoes, the tendon is then stretched beyond its normal range, putting abnormal strain on the tendon. Tight calf muscles which gives the foot a decreased range of motion. The strained calf muscles may also put extra strain on the Achilles tendon. Bone spur where the Achilles tendon attaches to the heel bone, aggravating the tendon and causing pain.
The onset of the symptoms of Achilles tendonitis tend to be gradual, with symptoms usually developing over a period of several days, or even weeks. Symptoms may include, Pain, this may be mild at first and may only be noticeable after exercise. Over time the pain may become constant and severe. Stiffness, this is usually relieved by activity. Sluggishness in the leg. Tenderness, particularly in the morning and most commonly felt just above where the tendon attaches to the heel bone. Swelling.
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.
The recommended treatment for Achilles tendinitis consists of icing, gentle stretching, and modifying or limiting activity. Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medications (NSAIDs), such as ibuprofen or aspirin, can reduce pain and swelling. Physical therapy and the use of an orthotic (heel lift) can also be helpful. For chronic cases where tendinosis is evident and other methods of treatment have failed, surgery may be recommended to remove and repair the damaged tissue.
Surgery should be considered to relieve Achilles tendinitis only if the pain does not improve after 6 months of nonsurgical treatment. The specific type of surgery depends on the location of the tendinitis and the amount of damage to the tendon. Gastrocnemius recession. This is a surgical lengthening of the calf (gastrocnemius) muscles. Because tight calf muscles place increased stress on the Achilles tendon, this procedure is useful for patients who still have difficulty flexing their feet, despite consistent stretching. In gastrocnemius recession, one of the two muscles that make up the calf is lengthened to increase the motion of the ankle. The procedure can be performed with a traditional, open incision or with a smaller incision and an endoscope-an instrument that contains a small camera. Your doctor will discuss the procedure that best meets your needs. Complication rates for gastrocnemius recession are low, but can include nerve damage. Gastrocnemius recession can be performed with or without d?bridement, which is removal of damaged tissue. D?bridement and repair (tendon has less than 50% damage). The goal of this operation is to remove the damaged part of the Achilles tendon. Once the unhealthy portion of the tendon has been removed, the remaining tendon is repaired with sutures, or stitches to complete the repair. In insertional tendinitis, the bone spur is also removed. Repair of the tendon in these instances may require the use of metal or plastic anchors to help hold the Achilles tendon to the heel bone, where it attaches. After d?bridement and repair, most patients are allowed to walk in a removable boot or cast within 2 weeks, although this period depends upon the amount of damage to the tendon. D?bridement with tendon transfer (tendon has greater than 50% damage). In cases where more than 50% of the Achilles tendon is not healthy and requires removal, the remaining portion of the tendon is not strong enough to function alone. To prevent the remaining tendon from rupturing with activity, an Achilles tendon transfer is performed. The tendon that helps the big toe point down is moved to the heel bone to add strength to the damaged tendon. Although this sounds severe, the big toe will still be able to move, and most patients will not notice a change in the way they walk or run. Depending on the extent of damage to the tendon, some patients may not be able to return to competitive sports or running. Recovery. Most patients have good results from surgery. The main factor in surgical recovery is the amount of damage to the tendon. The greater the amount of tendon involved, the longer the recovery period, and the less likely a patient will be able to return to sports activity. Physical therapy is an important part of recovery. Many patients require 12 months of rehabilitation before they are pain-free.
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.