Concerning Achilles Tendinitis

Overview

Achilles TendonitisAchilles tendinitis is one of the more common causes of heel pain and many people describe it as pain in the back of the heel. Since this condition is a form of tendinitis, patients mostly notice that the back of their heel is inflamed. The Achilles tendon is the largest tendon in your body. It is also one of the most important and most used parts of the body. It is essential for walking, running, jumping or even just an extension of the foot. It is for this reason that Achilles tendinitis can affect anyone who is constantly putting stress on his or her foot. Athletes are particularly at risk.


Causes

Hill running or stair climbing. Overuse resulting from the natural lack of flexibility in the calf muscles. Rapidly increasing mileage or speed. Starting up too quickly after a layoff. Trauma caused by sudden and hard contraction of the calf muscles when putting out extra effort such as in a final sprint. Achilles tendinitis often begins with mild pain after exercise or running that gradually worsens.


Symptoms

There are several types of Achilles tendinitis symptoms, but all of them are closely related. People who suffer from Achilles tendon pain typically have swelling in the Achilles tendon, and that pain can be chronic as the microscopic tears in the area become more prevalent over time. The most intense pain is typically located just a few centimeters above the area where the tendon meets the heel. This area is called the watershed zone, and the amount of blood moving through it is what gives it the highest potential for injury, especially for athletes. Most of the Achilles tendinitis symptoms in people with the condition will happen immediately after they have been inactive for a fairly significant amount of time. That means that the most pain will generally be felt after sitting or lying down for an extended period, or right after waking up in the morning and getting moving. If you aren?t positive that you are suffering specifically from Achilles tendinitis symptoms, consult a doctor to make sure.


Diagnosis

Examination of the achilles tendon is inspection for muscle atrophy, swelling, asymmetry, joint effusions and erythema. Atrophy is an important clue to the duration of the tendinopathy and it is often present with chronic conditions. Swelling, asymmetry and erythema in pathologic tendons are often observed in the examination. Joint effusions are uncommon with tendinopathy and suggest the possibility of intra-articular pathology. Range of motion testing, strength and flexibility are often limited on the side of the tendinopathy. Palpation tends to elicit well-localized tenderness that is similar in quality and location to the pain experienced during activity. Physical examinations of the Achilles tendon often reveals palpable nodules and thickening. Anatomic deformities, such as forefoot and heel varus and excessive pes planus or foot pronation, should receive special attention. These anatomic deformities are often associated with this problem. In case extra research is wanted, an echography is the first choice of examination when there is a suspicion of tendinosis. Imaging studies are not necessary to diagnose achilles tendonitis, but may be useful with differential diagnosis. Ultrasound is the imaging modality of first choice as it provides a clear indication of tendon width, changes of water content within the tendon and collagen integrity, as well as bursal swelling. MRI may be indicated if diagnosis is unclear or symptoms are atypical. MRI may show increased signal within the Achilles.


Nonsurgical Treatment

In most cases, nonsurgical treatment options will provide pain relief, although it may take a few months for symptoms to completely subside. Even with early treatment, the pain may last longer than 3 months. If you have had pain for several months before seeking treatment, it may take 6 months before treatment methods take effect. The first step in reducing pain is to decrease or even stop the activities that make the pain worse. If you regularly do high-impact exercises (such as running), switching to low-impact activities will put less stress on the Achilles tendon. Cross-training activities such as biking, elliptical exercise, and swimming are low-impact options to help you stay active. Placing ice on the most painful area of the Achilles tendon is helpful and can be done as needed throughout the day. This can be done for up to 20 minutes and should be stopped earlier if the skin becomes numb. A foam cup filled with water and then frozen creates a simple, reusable ice pack. After the water has frozen in the cup, tear off the rim of the cup. Then rub the ice on the Achilles tendon. With repeated use, a groove that fits the Achilles tendon will appear, creating a “custom-fit” ice pack. Drugs such as ibuprofen and naproxen reduce pain and swelling. They do not, however, reduce the thickening of the degenerated tendon. Using the medication for more than 1 month should be reviewed with your primary care doctor. The following exercise can help to strengthen the calf muscles and reduce stress on the Achilles tendon. Lean forward against a wall with one knee straight and the heel on the ground. Place the other leg in front, with the knee bent. To stretch the calf muscles and the heel cord, push your hips toward the wall in a controlled fashion. Hold the position for 10 seconds and relax. Repeat this exercise 20 times for each foot. A strong pull in the calf should be felt during the stretch. Physical therapy is very helpful in treating Achilles tendinitis. It has proven to work better for noninsertional tendinitis than for insertional tendinitis. Eccentric strengthening is defined as contracting (tightening) a muscle while it is getting longer. Eccentric strengthening exercises can cause damage to the Achilles tendon if they are not done correctly. At first, they should be performed under the supervision of a physical therapist. Once mastered with a therapist, the exercises can then be done at home. These exercises may cause some discomfort, however, it should not be unbearable. Stand at the edge of a stair, or a raised platform that is stable, with just the front half of your foot on the stair. This position will allow your heel to move up and down without hitting the stair. Care must be taken to ensure that you are balanced correctly to prevent falling and injury. Be sure to hold onto a railing to help you balance. Lift your heels off the ground then slowly lower your heels to the lowest point possible. Repeat this step 20 times. This exercise should be done in a slow, controlled fashion. Rapid movement can create the risk of damage to the tendon. As the pain improves, you can increase the difficulty level of the exercise by holding a small weight in each hand. This exercise is performed similarly to the bilateral heel drop, except that all your weight is focused on one leg. This should be done only after the bilateral heel drop has been mastered. Cortisone, a type of steroid, is a powerful anti-inflammatory medication. Cortisone injections into the Achilles tendon are rarely recommended because they can cause the tendon to rupture (tear).

Achilles Tendinitis


Surgical Treatment

Following the MRI or ultrasound scan of the Achilles tendon the extent of the degenerative change would have been defined. The two main types of operation for Achilles tendinosis are either a stripping of the outer sheath (paratenon) and longitudinal incisions into the tendon (known as a debridement) or a major excision of large portions of the tendon, the defects thus created then being reconstructed using either allograft (donor tendon, such as Wright medical graft jacket) or more commonly using a flexor hallucis longus tendon transfer. In cases of Achilles tendonosis with more minor degrees of degenerative change the areas can be stimulated to repair itself by incising the tendon, in the line of the fibres, which stimulates an ingrowth of blood vessels and results in the healing response. With severe Achilles tendonosis, occasionally a large area of painful tendon needs to be excised which then produces a defect which requires filling. This is best done by transferring the flexor hallucis longus muscle belly and tendon, which lies adjacent to the Achilles tendon. This results in a composite/double tendon after the operation, with little deficit from the transferred tendon.


Prevention

To prevent Achilles tendonitis or tendonosis from recurring after surgical or non-surgical treatment, the foot and ankle surgeon may recommend strengthening and stretching of the calf muscles through daily exercises. Wearing proper shoes for the foot type and activity is also important in preventing recurrence of the condition.