Achilles Tendonitis The Facts

Overview

Achilles TendonInflammation of the Achilles tendon.The Achilles is the large tendon connecting the two major calf muscles, gastrocnemius and soleus, to the back of the heel bone. Under too much stress, the tendon tightens and is forced to work too hard. This causes it to become inflamed (that is tendinitis), and, over time, can produce a covering of scar tissue, which is less flexible than the tendon. If the inflamed Achilles continues to be stressed, it can tear or rupture.

Causes

There are hundreds of tendons scattered throughout our body, but it tends to be a small handful of specific tendons that cause problems. These tendons usually have an area of poor blood supply that leads to tissue damage and poor healing response. This area of a tendon that is prone to injury is called a "watershed zone," an area when the blood supply to the tendon is weakest. In these watershed zones, they body has a hard time delivering oxygen and nutrients necessary for tendon healing, that's why we see common tendon problems in the same parts of the body. Tendonitis is most often an overuse injury. Often people begin a new activity or exercise that causes the tendon to become irritated. Tendon problems are most common in the 40-60 year old age range. Tendons are not as elastic and forgiving as in younger individuals, yet bodies are still exerting with the same force. Occasionally, there is an anatomical cause for tendonitis. If the tendon does not have a smooth path to glide along, it will be more likely to become irritated and inflamed. In these unusual situations, surgical treatment may be necessary to realign the tendon.

Symptoms

People with Achilles tendinitis may experience pain during and after exercising. Running and jumping activities become painful and difficult. Symptoms include stiffness and pain in the back of the ankle when pushing off the ball of the foot. For patients with chronic tendinitis (longer than six weeks), x-rays may reveal calcification (hardening of the tissue) in the tendon. Chronic tendinitis can result in a breakdown of the tendon, or tendinosis, which weakens the tendon and may cause a rupture.

Diagnosis

There is enlargement and warmth of the tendon 1 to 4 inches above its heel insertion. Pain and sometimes a scratching feeling may be created by gently squeezing the tendon between the thumb and forefinger during ankle motion. There may be weakness in push-off strength with walking. Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) can define the extent of degeneration, the degree to which the tendon sheath is involved and the presence of other problems in this area, but the diagnosis is mostly clinical.

Nonsurgical Treatment

Treatment options might include anti-inflammatory medication such as ibuprofen which might help with acute achilles inflammation and pain but has not been proven to be beneficial long term and may even inhibit healing. If the injury is severe then a plaster cast might be applied to immobilize the tendon. Use of electrotherapy such as ultrasound treatment, laser therapy and extracorporeal shock wave therapy (ESWT) may be beneficial in reducing pain and encouraging healing. Applying sports massage techniques can mobilze the tissues or the tendon itself and help stretch the calf muscles. Some might give a steroid injection however an injection directly into the tendon is not recommended. Some specialists believe this can increase the risk of a total rupture of the tendon in future. One of the most effective forms of treatment for achilles tendonitis is a full rehabilitation program consisting of eccentric strengthening exercises. There is now considerable evidence suggesting the effectiveness of slow eccentric rehabilitation exercises for curing achilles tendon pain.

Achilles Tendonitis

Surgical Treatment

If non-surgical approaches fail to restore the tendon to its normal condition, surgery may be necessary. The foot and ankle surgeon will select the best procedure to repair the tendon, based upon the extent of the injury, the patient?s age and activity level, and other factors.

Prevention

Regardless of whether the Achilles injury is insertional or non-insertional, a great method for lessening stress on the Achilles tendon is flexor digitorum longus exercises. This muscle, which originates along the back of the leg and attaches to the tips of the toes, lies deep to the Achilles. It works synergistically with the soleus muscle to decelerate the forward motion of the leg before the heel leaves the ground during propulsion. This significantly lessens strain on the Achilles tendon as it decelerates elongation of the tendon. Many foot surgeons are aware of the connection between flexor digitorum longus and the Achilles tendon-surgical lengthening of the Achilles (which is done to treat certain congenital problems) almost always results in developing hammer toes as flexor digitorum longus attempts to do the job of the recently lengthened tendon. Finally, avoid having cortisone injected into either the bursa or tendon-doing so weakens the tendon as it shifts production of collagen from type one to type three. In a recent study published in the Journal of Bone Joint Surgery(9), cortisone was shown to lower the stress necessary to rupture the Achilles tendon, and was particularly dangerous when done on both sides, as it produced a systemic effect that further weakened the tendon.

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