Achilles Tendon (Ankle) Injury

Simply defined, tendinitis is inflammation of a tendon. Inflammation is the body’s natural response to injury or disease, and often causes swelling, pain, or irritation.

There are two types of Achilles tendinitis, based upon which part of the tendon is inflamed.

Noninsertional Achilles Tendinitis

In noninsertional Achilles tendinitis, fibers in the middle portion of the tendon have begun to break down with tiny tears (degenerate), swell, and thicken.

Tendinitis of the middle portion of the tendon more commonly affects younger, active people.

Insertional Achilles Tendinitis

Insertional Achilles tendinitis involves the lower portion of the heel, where the tendon attaches (inserts) to the heel bone.

In both noninsertional and insertional Achilles tendinitis, damaged tendon fibers may also calcify (harden).

Bone spurs (extra bone growth) often form with insertional Achilles tendinitis.

Tendinitis that affects the insertion of the tendon can occur at any time, even in patients who are not active.

Cause

Achilles tendinitis is typically not related to a specific injury. The problem results from repetitive stress to the tendon. This often happens when we push our bodies to do too much, too soon, but other factors can make it more likely to develop tendinitis, including:

  • Sudden increase in the amount or intensity of exercise activity—for example, increasing the distance you run every day by a few miles without giving your body a chance to adjust to the new distance
  • Tight calf muscles—Having tight calf muscles and suddenly starting an aggressive exercise program can put extra stress on the Achilles tendon
  • Bone spur—Extra bone growth where the Achilles tendon attaches to the heel bone can rub against the tendon and cause pain

Symptoms

Common symptoms of Achilles tendinitis include:

  • Pain and stiffness along the Achilles tendon in the morning
  • Pain along the tendon or back of the heel that worsens with activity
  • Severe pain the day after exercising
  • Thickening of the tendon
  • Bone spur (insertional tendinitis)
  • Swelling that is present all the time and gets worse throughout the day with activity

If you have experienced a sudden “pop” in the back of your calf or heel, you may have ruptured (torn) your Achilles tendon. See your doctor immediately if you think you may have torn your tendon.

Diagnosis

After you describe your symptoms and discuss your concerns, the doctor will examine your foot and ankle. The doctor will look for these signs:

  • Swelling along the Achilles tendon or at the back of your heel
  • Thickening or enlargement of the Achilles tendon
  • Bony spurs at the lower part of the tendon at the back of your heel (insertional tendinitis)
  • The point of maximum tenderness
  • Pain in the middle of the tendon (noninsertional tendinitis)
  • Pain at the back of your heel at the lower part of the tendon (insertional tendinitis)
  • Limited range of motion in your ankle—specifically, a decreased ability to flex your foot

Your Wisconsin Bone & Joint orthopedic surgeon may order imaging tests to make sure your symptoms are caused by Achilles tendinitis.

X-rays
X-ray tests provide clear images of bones. X-rays can show whether the lower part of the Achilles tendon has calcified, or become hardened. This calcification indicates insertional Achilles tendinitis. In cases of severe noninsertional Achilles tendinitis, there can be calcification in the middle portion of the tendon, as well.

Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI)
Although magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) is not necessary to diagnose Achilles tendinitis, it is important for planning surgery. An MRI scan can show how severe the damage is in the tendon. If surgery is needed, your doctor will select the procedure based on the amount of tendon damage.

Treatment

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.

Rest. 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.

Ice. 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.

Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medication. Drugs such as ibuprofen and naproxen reduce pain and swelling. They do not, however, reduce the thickeningof the degenerated tendon. Using the medication for more than 1 month should be reviewed with your primary care doctor.

Exercise. The following exercise can help to strengthen the calf muscles and reduce stress on the Achilles tendon.

Physical Therapy. Physical therapy is very helpful in treating Achilles tendinitis. It has proven to work better for noninsertional tendinitis than for insertional tendinitis.

Eccentric Strengthening Protocol. 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.

Cortisone injections. 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).

Supportive shoes and orthotics. Pain from insertional Achilles tendinitis is often helped by certain shoes, as well as orthotic devices. For example, shoes that are softer at the back of the heel can reduce irritation of the tendon. In addition, heel lifts can take some strain off the tendon.

Heel lifts are also very helpful for patients with insertional tendinitis because they can move the heel away from the back of the shoe, where rubbing can occur. They also take some strain off the tendon. Like a heel lift, a silicone Achilles sleeve can reduce irritation from the back of a shoe.

If your pain is severe, your doctor may recommend a walking boot for a short time. This gives the tendon a chance to rest before any therapy is begun. Extended use of a boot is discouraged, though, because it can weaken your calf muscle.

Extracorporeal shockwave therapy (ESWT). During this procedure, high-energy shockwave impulses stimulate the healing process in damaged tendon tissue. ESWT has not shown consistent results and, therefore, is not commonly performed.

ESWT is noninvasive—it does not require a surgical incision. Because of the minimal risk involved, ESWT is sometimes tried before surgery is considered.

Surgical Treatment

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.

Your Doctors

Tips for Healthy Feet

  • Don’t ignore foot pain, it isn’t normal. If pain persists, see a physician.
  • Inspect your feet regularly. Note changes in color and temperature, thickness or discoloration of nails, and cracks or cuts in the skin. Peeling or scaling on the soles could indicate athlete’s foot. Any growth on the foot is not considered normal.
  • Wash your feet regularly, especially between the toes. Be sure to dry them completely.
  • Trim toenails straight across, but not too short. Be careful not to cut nails in corners or on the sides; it can lead to ingrown toenails. People with diabetes, poor circulation, or heart problems are more prone to infection and should not treat their own feet.
  • Make sure that your shoes fit properly. Replace worn-out shoes as soon as possible, and try on new shoes later in the day when feet tend to be at their largest.
  • Select and wear the right shoe for your activity, in other words, running shoes for running.
  • Don’t wear the same pair of shoes every day, but rather alternate them.
  • Avoid walking barefoot. Your feet are more prone to injury and infection when walking barefoot. When at the beach or wearing sandals, remember to use sunscreen on your feet as well as the rest of your body.
  • Use home remedies cautiously. Self-treatment often turns a minor injury into a major foot problem. If you have diabetes, it is essential that you see a podiatric physician at least once a year for a thorough check-up.