What is an Achilles Injury and How Can I Prevent It?

The news today of another NFL player going down due to a torn Achilles tendon early in training camp has prompted much conversation on how to prevent this dreaded injury. Already this week, the Detroit Lions’ second-round draft pick, Michel LeShore, and the Cleveland Browns’ All-pro punter, Reggie Hodges, have had their seasons ended by ruptured Achilles tendons. With training camps open for less than two weeks, unofficial counts have 10 players with season- and career-threatening Achilles tendon tears. So, how can you prevent an Achilles injury?

First of all, why is it called an “Achilles?”  Remember that in Greek mythology, Achilles was the Greek hero of the Trojan War. Legends state that Achilles was invulnerable in all of his body except for his heel. As he died because of a small wound on his heel, the term “Achilles’ heel” has come to mean a person’s principal weakness. “You’ve torn your Achilles” is something no person wants to hear from a physician or trainer.

Overview

The Achilles tendon is a strong fibrous cord that connects the muscles in the back of your calf to your heel bone. The Achilles tendon is the thickest and strongest tendon in the body. If you overstretch your Achilles tendon, it can tear (rupture). An Achilles tendon rupture can be partial or complete.

Causes & Symptoms

Signs or symptoms of an Achilles tendon rupture include:

  • Pain, possibly severe, and swelling near your heel
  • An inability to bend your foot downward or “push off” the injured leg when you walk
  • An inability to stand up on your toes on the injured leg

Exercise or activity-induced Achilles tendon injuries can be caused by overuse, misalignment, or improper footwear. Multiple causes often contribute to the same Achilles tendon injury. For example, a sudden increase in exertion to the tendon through running, an improper foot bed in your shoes, and weak or tight calf muscles could all contribute to Achilles tendinosis, Achilles tendinitis, or subsequent tears.

Prevention

To help prevent an Achilles tendon injury, gently stretch your Achilles tendon and calf muscles before taking part in physical activities. Perform stretching exercises slowly, stretching to the point at which you feel a noticeable pull, but not pain. Don’t bounce during a stretch. To help the muscle and tendon absorb more force and avoid injury, try exercises that strengthen your calves.

To further reduce your chance of developing Achilles tendon problems, follow these tips:

  • Avoid activities that place excessive stress on your Achilles tendons, such as hill-running and jumping activities.
  • If you notice pain during exercise, rest.
  • If one exercise or activity causes you persistent pain, try another.
  • Alternate high-impact sports, such as running, with low-impact sports, such as walking, biking or swimming.
  • Maintain a healthy weight.
  • Wear well-fitting athletic shoes with proper cushioning in the heels.

 

Treatment

Surgery
Surgery is a common treatment for a complete rupture of the Achilles tendon. The procedure generally involves making an incision in the back of your lower leg and stitching the torn tendon together. Depending on the condition of the torn tissue, the repair may be reinforced with other tendons. Afterward, you’ll need to spend about six to eight weeks with your leg in a walking boot, cast, brace or splint.

Nonsurgical treatment
This approach typically involves wearing a cast or walking boot, which allows the ends of your torn tendon to reattach themselves on their own. This method can be effective, and it avoids the risks, such as infection, associated with surgery. However, the likelihood of re-rupture is higher with a nonsurgical approach, and recovery can take longer. If re-rupture occurs, surgical repair may be more difficult.

Rehabilitation
After treatment, whether surgical or nonsurgical, you’ll go through a rehabilitation program involving physical therapy exercises to strengthen your leg muscles and Achilles tendon. Most people return to their former level of activity within four to six months.

If you feel like you are having Achilles problems then please contact the OAM Sports Medicine Institute for an appointment at 616-459-7101.

For additional resources concerning Achilles tendon issues please visit the following links:

http://www.oamichigan.com/smi

http://www.mayoclinic.com/

http://achillestendon.com/

http://www.webmd.com/

http://www.nytimes.com/

Image courtesy of RelayHealth and/or its affiliates. All rights reserved. (c) 2007

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