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Achilles Tendon Injuries

An Achilles tendon injury affects the tendon that connects the calf muscle to the heel. Injury can take shape in the form of tendonitis, typically from prolonged stress, or a rupture, which typically occurs by blunt force to the tendon.

Compassionate Healing Starts Here

At UC Health, our Foot & Ankle subspecialists bring years of training and experience to treat even the most complex conditions and injuries so that you can return to daily activities as normal. We know that foot and ankle problems are often linked to medical conditions, so we partner closely with other specialists to deliver you world-class, comprehensive care in one place.

To schedule an appointment, please call the UC Health Foot & Ankle team at 513-475-8690.

As the referral center for Greater Cincinnati and the region, the Sports Medicine & Concussion program provides top quality care for even the most complex musculoskeletal conditions. We customize treatment plans that use the most innovative, effective surgical and nonsurgical techniques to restore function, relieve pain for professional athletes, high school sports teams and anyone who leads an active lifestyle.

To schedule an appointment, please call the UC Health Sports Medicine & Concussion team at 513-475-8690.

ABOUT THIS CONDITION

Understanding Achilles Tendon Injuries

What are Achilles tendon injuries?

The Achilles tendon is a fibrous band of tissue that links the muscles in your calf to your heel. The strength and flexibility of this tendon are important for jumping, running and walking. Your Achilles tendon bears a lot of stress and pressure during everyday activities, as well as during athletic and recreational play. If it becomes inflamed, swollen and irritated, this condition is called tendonitis.

What causes Achilles tendon injuries?

Achilles tendon injuries can be caused by the following:

Tendonitis

Tendonitis might be due to overuse or damage to the area. It can cause pain down the back of your leg and around your heel. You might notice that parts of your tendon are getting thicker and hardening because of tendonitis. This will get worse if you don't treat it. There are two main types of tendonitis:

  • Noninsertional Achilles tendonitis. Small tears in the middle fibers of your tendon start to break it down. This causes pain and swelling. This type of tendonitis usually affects active, younger adults.

  • Insertional Achilles tendonitis. This damage occurs in the spot where your tendon meets your heel bone. Bone spurs (extra bone growth) often form with this type. This type of tendonitis can happen at any age, even in people who are not active.

Rupture

The tears in your tendon fibers can cause a complete or partial break (or tear) in your tendon. You might hear a “pop” that seems to come from the back of your heel or calf. This may be a tendon rupture, which needs immediate medical attention.

Who is at risk for Achilles tendon injuries?

Anyone can develop an Achilles tendon injury. They’re often linked to repetitive stress. The most common risk factors are:

  • Increased amount or intensity of an activity or sport.

  • Starting a new sport.

  • Tight calf muscles when starting an exercise or sport, which can place more stress on your tendon.

  • Bone spurs on your heel, which can rub against the tendon.

  • Wearing the wrong shoes when you exercise.

  • Exercising on an uneven surface.

  • Treatment with fluoroquinolone, an antibiotic.

What are the symptoms of an Achilles tendon injury?

Common symptoms of tendon injuries include:

  • Pain down the back of your leg or near your heel.

  • Pain that gets worse when you're active.

  • A stiff, sore Achilles tendon when you first get up.

  • Pain in the tendon the day after exercising.

  • Swelling with pain that gets worse as you're active during the day.

  • Thickening of your tendon.

  • Bone spurs on the heel bone.

  • Difficulty flexing the affected foot.

  • A “pop” sound and sudden sharp pain, which can mean a ruptured tendon.

How is an Achilles tendon injury diagnosed?

Injury to the Achilles tendon causes pain along the back of your leg near the heel. Sometimes healthcare providers misdiagnose Achilles tendon injuries as a sprained ankle. It’s important to get the right diagnosis so you can get the right treatment. Several common injuries can make your Achilles tendon painful or prevent it from working well.

Your healthcare provider will consider the following when making a diagnosis:

  • Your overall health and medical history.

  • A description of your symptoms.

  • A physical exam of your Achilles tendon to check for bone spurs, pain and swelling.

  • A test to see if you can move your ankle properly (range of motion).

  • Imaging tests, such as X-ray or MRI. An X-ray shows bones and can show if the tendon has become calcified or hardened and can show bone spurs. Your healthcare provider will usually use MRI to see how severe the tendon damage is and what treatment is best for you.

How are Achilles tendon injuries treated?

Treatment depends on how badly injured your tendon is. It may include:

  • Rest.

  • Ice.

  • Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) for pain relief such as ibuprofen or naproxen.

  • Specific exercises to strengthen your calf muscles.

  • Physical therapy.

  • A type of exercise that helps strengthen your calf muscles to take pressure off your tendon called eccentric strength training

  • Low-impact activities, such as swimming.

  • Heel lifts in shoes, orthotic shoes, cast, splint or a walking boot.

  • Extracorporeal shockwave therapy. This treatment uses high-energy shockwave impulses to help stimulate the healing process in damaged tendon tissue. This treatment isn’t often used. However, your healthcare provider may recommend it to see whether you can improve without surgery.

If these treatments do not work, or if the injury is severe or complete, surgery may be considered. The type of surgery depends on the location and amount of damage to the tendon. It can also depend on other things, such as the severity of the tendonitis. Some of the surgical procedures used include:

  • Surgery to lengthen your calf muscles (gastrocnemius recession).

  • Debridement surgery to remove damaged tendon tissue or bone spurs and repair the tendon.

  • Surgery to remove your damaged tendon tissue, fix the remaining tendon and give it extra strength by moving another tendon to the heel bone.

What are the possible complications of Achilles tendon injuries?

Complications of an Achilles tendon injury may include:

  • Pain, which can be severe.

  • Difficulty walking or being active.

  • Warping of your tendon area or heel bone.

  • Tendon rupture from reinjury.

Other complications can happen because of the treatments used to treat an Achilles tendon injury. For instance:

  • Sometimes, cortisone injections can cause the tendon to tear.

  • Surgery can lead to pain and infection.

How can I prevent Achilles tendon injuries?

These steps can help prevent injury to your Achilles tendon:

  • Warm up before exercising or before sports or other repetitive movements.

  • Increase activity slowly rather than all at once.

  • Wear the correct shoes for your activities.

  • Do not exercise on uneven surfaces.

  • Stop activities that cause pain.

  • Be aware of the risks of fluoroquinolone and exercise with caution if you’re taking this drug.

How to manage an Achilles tendon injury

  • Follow your healthcare provider’s advice to get rest and manage pain and swelling.

  • Choose other ways to be active.

  • Try low-impact activities that do not place a lot of stress on your tendon, such as swimming or bicycling, rather than a high-impact exercise like running.

  • Always let your healthcare provider know if these strategies don’t help reduce pain, swelling and loss of function.

When should I call my healthcare provider?

Call your healthcare provider right away if you hear a “pop” sound and have sudden pain in the back of your leg or heel. Otherwise, schedule an appointment if pain or trouble moving affects your regular daily activities.

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