Achilles Tendinitis

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.

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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 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.

Examination

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

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.

Surgical Treatments

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.

Débridement and Repair

The goal of this operation is to remove the damaged part of the Achilles tendon. Once the unhealthy portion of the tendon has been removed, the remaining tendon is repaired with sutures, or stitches to complete the repair.

Débridement with Tendon Transfer

In cases where more than 50% of the Achilles tendon is not healthy and requires removal, the remaining portion of the tendon is not strong enough to function alone. To prevent the remaining tendon from rupturing with activity, an Achilles tendon transfer is performed. The tendon that helps the big toe point down is moved to the heel bone to add strength to the damaged tendon. Although this sounds severe, the big toe will still be able to move, and most patients will not notice a change in the way they walk or run.

Recovery

Most patients have good results from surgery. The main factor in surgical recovery is the amount of damage to the tendon. The greater the amount of tendon involved, the longer the recovery period and the less likely a patient will be able to return to sports activity.

Physical therapy is an important part of recovery. Many patients require 12 months of rehabilitation before they are pain-free.

Complications

Moderate to severe pain after surgery is noted in 20% to 30% of patients and is the most common complication. In addition, a wound infection can occur and the infection is very difficult to treat in this location.

Lowcountry Orthopaedics’ Foot & Ankle Team

William Corey, MD

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