Achilles tendonitis is an inflammation of the Achilles tendon. This inflammation is typically short-lived. Over time, if not resolved, the condition may progress to a degeneration of the tendon (Achilles tendonosis), in which the tendon loses its organized structure and is likely to develop microscopic tears. Sometimes the degeneration involves the site where the Achilles tendon attaches to the heel bone. In rare cases, chronic degeneration with or without pain may result in rupture of the tendon.
Over-pronation, injury and overstresses of the tendon are some of the most common causes. Risk factors include tight heel cords, poor foot alignment, and recent changes in activities or shoes. During a normal gait cycle, the upper and lower leg rotate in unison (i.e. internally during pronation and externally during supination). However, when a person over-pronates, the lower leg is locked into the foot and therefore continues to rotate internally past the end of the contact phase while the femur begins to rotate externally at the beginning of midstance. The Gastrocnemius muscle is attached to the upper leg and rotates externally while the Soleus muscle is attached to the lower leg and rotates internally during pronation. The resulting counter rotation of the upper and lower leg causes a shearing force to occur in the Achilles tendon. This counter rotation twists the tendon at its weakest area, namely the Achilles tendon itself, and causes the inflammation. Since the tendon is avascular, once inflammation sets in, it tends to be chronic.
Most cases of Achilles tendonitis start out slowly, with very little pain, and then grow worse over time. Some of the more common symptoms include mild pain or an ache above the heel and in the lower leg, especially after running or doing other physical activities, pain that gets worse when walking uphill, climbing stairs, or taking part in intense or prolonged exercise, stiffness and tenderness in the heel, especially in the morning, that gradually goes away, swelling or hard knots of tissue in the Achilles tendon, a creaking or crackling sound when moving the ankle or pressing on the Achilles tendon, weakness in the affected leg.
Laboratory studies usually are not necessary in evaluating and diagnosing an Achilles tendon rupture or injury, although evaluation may help to rule out some of the other possibilities in the differential diagnosis. Imaging studies. Plain radiography: Radiographs are more useful for ruling out other injuries than for ruling in Achilles tendon ruptures. Ultrasonography: Ultrasonography of the leg and thigh can help to evaluate the possibility of deep venous thrombosis and also can be used to rule out a Baker cyst; in experienced hands, ultrasonography can identify a ruptured Achilles tendon or the signs of tendinosis. Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI): MRI can facilitate definitive diagnosis of a disrupted tendon and can be used to distinguish between paratenonitis, tendinosis, and bursitis.
Most cases are successfully treated non-surgically although this is time-consuming and frustrating for active patients. Treatment is less likely to be successful if symptoms have been present more than six months. Nonsurgical management includes nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medications, rest, immobilization, limitation of activity, ice, contrast baths, stretching and heel lifts. If symptoms fail to resolve after two to three months, a formal physical therapy program may be of benefit. An arch support may help if there is an associated flatfoot. A cast or brace to completely rest this area may be necessary. Extracorporeal shockwave therapy and platelet-rich plasma injections? have variable reports of success. Nitroglycerin medication applied to the overlying skin may be of benefit.
In cases of severe, long-term Achilles tendonitis the sheath may become thick and fibrous. In these cases surgery may be recommended. Surgery aims to remove the fibrous tissue and repair any tears in the tendon. A cast or splint will be required after the operation and a recovery program including physiotherapy, specific exercises and a gradual return to activity will be planned.
As with all injuries, prevention is your best defense especially with injuries that are as painful and inconvenient as Achilles tendonitis. Options for how to prevent Achilles tendonitis include, stretching- Stretching properly, starting slowly, and increasing gradually will be critical if you want to avoid Achilles tendonitis. To help maintain flexibility in the ankle joint, begin each day with a series of stretches and be certain to stretch prior to, and after, any exercise or excessive physical activity. Orthotics and Heel Support- Bio-mechanically engineered inserts and heel cups can be placed in your shoes to correct misalignments or bolster the support of your foot and are available without a prescription. The temporary heel padding that these provide reduces the length that the Achilles tendon stretches each time you step, making it more comfortable to go about your daily routine. Proper Footwear- Low-heeled shoes with good arch support and shock absorption are best for the health of your foot. Look into heel wedges and other shoe inserts to make sure that your everyday foot mechanics are operating under ideal conditions.