The Achilles tendon is a rubber band-like tendon at the back of your calf that connects your leg muscles to your heel bone. It helps keep you upright and allows you to flex your foot so you can run, jump and stand on your toes. Even though it’s the strongest tendon in the body, the Achilles tendon can be injured, and the cause is usually overuse.
Overuse of the Achilles Tendon
Overusing the tendon can happen to professional athletes as well as those among us known as weekend warriors. The problem for athletes tends to be non-stop, intensive training. Non-athletes can get into trouble by stepping up their levels of physical activity too quickly.
When a fairly sedentary person suddenly takes up a new sport, for example, going full-out without proper warm-up, stretching and cooling-down periods, inflammation of the tendon can occur. Called Achilles tendinitis, the usual signs of the injury include pain and swelling at the site.
Treatment for Achilles Tendinitis
Standard treatment is known as RICER, an acronym that stands for Rest, Ice, Compression, Elevation, Referral. Immediately stop any activity that causes discomfort, getting off your feet as soon (and as much) as possible to allow the tendon to rest, and start icing right away. Ice will cool the tissue and reduce pain and swelling, and it should be applied every 2 hours for 20 minutes each time. Ice for at least 24 hours, but no more than 72 hours.
Using a tensor bandage to support the ankle can also help reduce swelling, although care must be taken that it is not too tight. Elevating the injured foot while resting can also help lessen inflammation.
If you have not seen improvement after one week, visit your doctor in case you need immobilization, physical therapy or surgery. Physical therapy may include heel-drop exercises such as eccentric calf raises, which can also be performed as a strengthening and preventive exercise.
Achilles Tendon Rupture
The only treatment for a torn achilles tendon, usually known as an Achilles tendon rupture, is surgery. This injury is the result of a sudden force or movement, with an abrupt tensing of the muscle, such as when a sprinter starts a race. Signs of a complete tear of the tendon include not just pain but also difficulty flexing your foot or pointing your toes.
Full Recovery Takes Time
Whatever the injury to your achilles tendon, you must give it time to completely heal before starting any activity again. If you attempt to get back to your pre-injury level of physical activity before you are completely healed, you could actually end up doing more damage in the long run, with a possible outcome of permanent pain and disability.
Stretching for Prevention
Prevention is key to maintaining healthy achilles tendons, and all it requires is a simple daily stretching routine to make a real difference. The same heel drop exercises that help heal a case of tendonitis can also be used to keep your achilles tendons in good shape, with the stretch elongating both the muscles and tendons.
In addition to daily stretching, wear shoes that fit well and provide good support, and always start any new or additional exercise routine slowly, increasing the intensity over time, with lots of stretching before and after the activity.