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Achilles tendinitis

Achilles tendinitis is when the tendon that connects the back of your leg to your heel becomes swollen and painful near the bottom of the foot. This tendon is called the Achilles tendon. It is used for walking, running, and jumping.

Alternative Names

Tendinitis of the heel

Causes

There are two large muscles in the calf. These muscles are important for walking. They create the power needed to push off with the foot or go up on the toes. The large Achilles tendon connects these muscles to the heel.

Heel pain is most often due to overuse of the foot. Rarely it is caused by an injury.

Tendinitis due to overuse is most common in younger people. It can occur in walkers, runners, or other athletes.

Achilles tendinitis may be more likely to occur if:

  • Suddenly increase the amount or intensity of an activity
  • Your calf muscles are very tight (not stretched out)
  • You run on hard surfaces such as concrete
  • You run too often
  • You jump a lot (such as when playing basketball)
  • You do not have shoes with proper support
  • Your foot suddenly turns in or out

Tendinitis from arthritis is more common in middle-aged and elderly people. A bone spur or growth may form in the back of the heel bone. This may irritate the Achilles tendon and cause pain and swelling.

Symptoms

Symptoms include pain in the heel and along the tendon when walking or running. The area may feel painful and stiff in the morning.

The tendon may be painful to touch or move. The area may be swollen and warm. You may have trouble standing up on one toe.

Exams and Tests

The doctor will perform a physical exam. The doctor will look for tenderness along the tendon and pain in the area of the tendon when you stand on your toes.

X-rays can help diagnose bone problems.

An MRI scan may be done if your doctor is thinking about surgery or is worried about the tear in the Achilles tendon.

Treatment

The main treatments for Achilles tendinitis do not involve surgery. It is important to remember that it may take at least 2 to 3 months for the pain to go away.

Try putting ice over the Achilles tendon for 15 to 20 minutes, two to three times per day. Remove the ice if the area gets numb.

Changes in activity may help manage the symptoms:

  • Decrease or stop any activity that causes you pain.
  • Run or walk on smoother and softer surfaces.
  • Switch to biking, swimming, or other activities that put less stress on the Achilles tendon.

Your health care provider or physical therapist can show you stretching exercises for the Achilles tendon.

They may also suggest the following changes in your footwear:

  • A brace or boot or cast to keep the heel and tendon still and allow the swelling to go down
  • Heel lifts placed in the shoe under the heel
  • Shoes that are softer in the areas over and under the heel cushion

Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as aspirin and ibuprofen can help with pain or swelling. Talk with your health care provider.

If these treatments do not improve symptoms, you may need surgery to remove inflamed tissue and abnormal areas of the tendon. Surgery also can be used to remove the bone spur that is irritating the tendon.

Extracorporeal shock wave therapy (ESWT) may be an alternative to surgery for people who have not responded to other treatments. This treatment uses low-dose sound waves.

Outlook (Prognosis)

Lifestyle changes usually help improve symptoms. However, symptoms may return if you do not limit activities that cause pain, or if you do not maintain the strength and flexibility of the tendon.

Possible Complications

Achilles tendinitis may make you more likely to have an Achilles rupture. This condition usually causes a sharp pain, like someone hit you in the back of the heel with a stick. Surgical repair is necessary, but difficult because the tendon is not normal.

When to Contact a Medical Professional

If you have pain in the heel around the Achilles tendon that is worse with activity, contact your health care provider for evaluation and possible treatment for tendinitis.

Prevention

Maintaining strength and flexibility in the muscles of the calf will help reduce the risk of tendinitis. Overusing a weak or tight Achilles tendon makes you more likely to develop tendinitis.

References

Gollwitzer H, Diehl P, von Korff A, Rahlfs VW, Gerdesmeyer L. Extracorporeal shock wave therapy for chronic painful heel syndrome: a prospective, double blind, randomized trial assessing the efficacy of a new electromagnetic shock wave device. J Foot Ankle Surg. 2007;46:348-357.

Baer GS, Keene JS. Tendon injuries of the foot and ankle. In: DeLee JC, Drez D Jr., Miller MD, eds. DeLee and Drez's Orthopaedic Sports Medicine. 3rd ed. Philadelphia, PA: Saunders Elsevier;2009:section D.

Updated: 8/11/2012

David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, A.D.A.M. Health Solutions, Ebix, Inc., and C. Benjamin Ma, MD, Assistant Professor, Chief, Sports Medicine and Shoulder Service, UCSF Department of Orthopaedic Surgery, San Francisco, CA.


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