Tendinitis is inflammation of a tendon. Thus, Achilles tendinitis is an inflammation of the Achilles tendon. The inflammation may be localized to the end of the tendon closest to the heel or may spread upward to affect even the muscles of the calf. Swelling often occurs and pain is felt upon contraction of the calf muscles. In severe cases, pain may be felt even at rest. Generally, Achilles tendinitis begins as a dull pain at the back of the lower leg just above the heel when pushing off the ground with the foot. Unless the activity is stopped, the condition rapidly gets worse until any activity requiring a push-off from the ground by the foot becomes quite painful and nearly impossible. If it is left untreated, it can develop into one of two more serious conditions - Achilles tendinosis and Insertional Calcific Tendinitis.
Achilles tendonitis is an overuse injury. Too much too soon is the common cause of overuse injuries, however other factors can contribute to developing the condition. An increase in activity, either distance, speed or a sudden change to running up hills. As a rule of thumb distance runners should increase their mileage by no more than 10% per week. A change of footwear or training surface for example suddenly running on soft sand can cause the heel to drop lower than normal making the tendon stretch further than it is used to. Weak calf muscles can tighten or go into partial spasm which again increases the strain on the achilles tendon by shortening the muscle. Running up hills - the achilles tendon has to stretch more than normal on every stride. This is fine for a while but will mean the tendon will fatigue sooner than normal. Overpronation or feet which roll in when running can place an increased strain on the achilles tendon. As the foot rolls in (flattens) the lower leg also rotates inwards which places twisting stresses on the tendon. Wearing high heels constantly shortens the tendon and calf muscles. When exercising in flat running shoes, the tendon is stretched beyond its normal range which places an abnormal strain on the tendon.
Symptoms of acute achilles tendonitis will be a gradual onset of achilles pain at the back of the ankle, just above the heel bone. This may develop over a period of days. The achilles tendon may be painful and stiff at the start of exercise and first thing in the morning. As the tendon warms up the pain will go often for it to return later in the day or towards the end of a prolonged training session. The tendon will be very tender on palpation or pressing in on the achilles tendon or squeezing it from the sides. Chronic achilles tendonitis may follow on from acute achilles tendonitis if it goes untreated or is not allowed sufficient rest. Chronic achilles tendonitis is a difficult condition to treat, particularly in older athletes who appear to suffer more often.
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.
Initial treatment consists of medication and ice to relieve the pain, stretching and strengthening exercises, and modification of the activity that initially caused the problem. These all can be carried out at home, although referral to a physical therapist or athletic trainer for further evaluation and treatment may be helpful. Occasionally a walking boot or cast may be recommended to immobilize the tendon, allowing the inflammation to settle down. For less severe cases or after immobilization, a heel lift may be prescribed to reduce stress to the tendon. This may be followed by an elastic bandage wrap of the ankle and Achilles tendon. Orthotics (arch supports) may be prescribed or recommended by your physician. Surgery to remove the inflamed tendon lining or degenerated tendon tissue is rarely necessary and has shown less than predictable results.
Surgical treatment for tendons that fail to respond to conservative treatment can involve several procedures, all of which are designed to irritate the tendon and initiate a chemically mediated healing response. These procedures range from more simple procedures such as percutaneous tenotomy61 to open procedures and removal of tendon pathology. Percutaneous tenotomy resulted in 75% of patients reporting good or excellent results after 18 months. Open surgery for Achilles tendinopathy has shown that the outcomes are better for those tendons without a focal lesion compared with those with a focal area of tendinopathy.62 At 7 months after surgery, 67% had returned to physical activity, 88% from the no-lesion group and 50% from the group with a focal lesion.
If you're just getting started with your training, be sure to stretch after running, and start slowly, increasing your mileage by no more than 10% per week. Strengthen your calf muscles with exercises such as toe raises. Work low-impact cross-training activities, such as cycling and swimming, into your training.