Achilles tendonitis: Early self-treatment and when it's gone too far, Part 2

In part 1 you learned the basics of treating a recent onset of Achilles tendonitis. Much of that should emphasize the soft tissue mobility of the lower leg (which is more than just stretching). For those of you that don't have a grasp on how to be working on the soft tissue of your lower leg with foam rolling, self-massage and other techniques, check out my post and video here

If reduction of mileage, over-the-counter anti-inflammatories and ice don't help knock out the pain then it is very likely that you are no longer dealing with an inflammatory condition. The tendon area could feel increasingly stiff and tight after you have sat for a while and then place weight on the leg or when you first put weight on the leg in the morning after sleeping. When that initial inflammatory stage has started to pass in 2-4 weeks and you still haven’t gotten anywhere because you continue to have pain, then consider professional guidance. This is especially true if the injury keeps occurring or you notice the Achilles tendon itself remains swollen or is thickening in size or is forming hard nodules. Another issue to note here is that pain where the Achilles tendon attaches to your heel will often be harder to treat and slower to resolve. Indications for seeking professional help immediately would be: 

  • any indication of bruising in the heel or Achilles area
  • inability to bear enough weight to walk normally with that leg
  • you felt a "popping" sensation at a single moment of injury
  • you can't make your calf contract firmly to point your toes downward or can't perform a calf raise

If you feel any of these situations apply to you then you need more immediate attention with a medical professional. 

Swollen left Achilles tendon

Swollen left Achilles tendon

There are several things to consider with advanced examination and treatment. First being the findings of neurological and musculoskeletal exam. Second being running gait evaluation results. Third being training errors, footwear, terrain and so on. 

If you recently changed your running technique so that you land forefoot first and push off heavily from your forefoot then you might want to reconsider jumping into that abrupt change. If you are an aging runner this could be especially risky. There are often balance and stability deficits that result in poor control of the entire leg, which we will discuss in a future blog post. I would also suggest strengthening your hips. It is very common for me to see knee and ankle injuries on the same side as an athlete's weaker hip muscles. This feeds back into the stability control problem. Your movement needs to be precise.

Any care needs to consider the phase of healing that the tendon is in. The illustration below summarizes this nicely. Ultimately, we are interested in the Achilles having an appropriate level of collagen (scar) deposits and remodeling those deposits to support the injured area. That sounds simple but if you look at the time frame along the bottom axis of the graph you will notice that collagen is being placed as early as 3 days but needs to continue for weeks to months afterwards. Tendon healing, unfortunately, tends to lean toward weeks and months, which is why you shouldn't delay proper care and ignore the pain. This doesn't mean you won't be able to exercise during that time. 

PHases of injury healing, From Daly TJ: The repair phase of wound Healing, re-epitheliazation and contraction. In  Kloth CL, McCulloch JM, Feedar JA (eds.): Wound healing: alternatives in management. philadelphia, FA davis, 1990, p 15. 

PHases of injury healing, From Daly TJ: The repair phase of wound Healing, re-epitheliazation and contraction. In  Kloth CL, McCulloch JM, Feedar JA (eds.): Wound healing: alternatives in management. philadelphia, FA davis, 1990, p 15. 

Tendonitis and a tendinosis are both treatable with some of these techniques in common and some techniques being very different. Tendinosis, the more degenerative condition, requires heavy commitment to a home exercise program to perform strengthening exercises as well as manual therapy in the clinic to decrease scar adhesions, increase ankle motion and maybe even provoke an inflammatory response in the tendon area again. The strengthening must be performed frequently enough and with enough difficulty to force your tendon to adapt, similar to your normal exercise routine. The trick is knowing how much pain to push through. Both injuries can be treated successfully. 

Mid-stance of running gait

Mid-stance of running gait

The good thing is the human body is adaptable. The bad thing is it takes time and effort. Depending on where you area in the injury process, you might be able to run again sooner with some simple running gait changes to decrease the Achilles tendon load, proper strengthening, balance training, decreased training stress and properly addressing calf muscle tissue integrity. 

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Fixing overuse running injuries with Heather Parks

This week I had the pleasure of working with local runner Heather Parks on addressing some of her long-term running injuries. These old injuries include Achilles tendonitis, piriformis syndrome, and multiple ankle sprains along with current foot pain. She has been distance running since she was a young teenager and like many of us, has had some of her injuries show up multiple times. To compensate, she has done what many runners might do: try out different kinds of shoes, add an over-the-counter foot orthotic, ice the injured area and start training the core muscles more. Oh, and ignore some of the pain. Runners are great at ignoring pain and we consciously or unconsciously change our techniques sometimes. 

These adjuncts have given her some success, but neglecting proper treatment over time would lead her back to the same types of pain. Recurring themes are an indicator that something is mechanically deficient.

Now Heather is no slouch when it comes to running. She’s run in the US Olympic Marathon Trials. So she’s put big demands on her body in the past, responded well and come out on the other side with greater fitness. Our bodies become really good at improving efficiency within the constraints that they are given. If you learn to run fast with a decreased amount of hip motion, for example, then you have accomplished your goal of running fast but with less than ideal biomechanics. But how long can you keep up this high intensity and high mileage before something in the body begins to wear down prematurely because of the restricted hip motion? The same goes for restricted ankle motion. Someone that is in spectacular physical condition, like Heather, is going to be more resilient. But with time, mileage, and previous injuries, the little mechanical flaws start to add up and pain starts to creep in.

Increasing her intensity with track workouts and turning on the tight corners of an indoor track would stir some of these things up predictably. Running track turns are very repetitive when performed in the same direction and force us into a slight asymmetry with every step. Wearing racing flats would increase her pain as well. This is likely related to the lowered heel height of the shoe that places more load on the calf and Achilles tendon.  Despite decreasing her mileage earlier this week, Heather continued to have right heel pain multiple days later. She had a hunch her history of calf and Achilles pain could be related. And it is. But we’ll get to that later.

First, let’s look at her examination findings. Initially, I noticed a significant right calf muscle atrophy (smaller muscle). When instructed to do a calf raise onto her forefoot Heather did 20 repetitions on her left side but only managed 10 on the right side - and the technique was lacking. She demonstrated weakness of both hamstrings groups (but worse on the right). Her right gluteus medius muscle at the hip was a grade weaker than the left side. She was unable to squat fully to the ground while keeping her entire foot in contact because of the shortness in her lower leg muscles. She was also unable to squat fully because of her tendency to be reliant on her quadriceps muscles and is unaware of how to to use her hip muscles for strength and stability. When squatting on a single leg her right knee tended to drift toward the midline of her body, which is a sign of poor hip control, again linking back to the weak gluteal muscles. Her single leg balance with her eyes closed was better than many people at 16 seconds on the right leg and 12 seconds on the left leg but I’d rather both of them be at least 30 seconds. Heather could hold a side plank on her right side for 45 seconds but could manage only 25 seconds for the left side.

Right calf with decreased muscle mass

Right calf with decreased muscle mass

Watching Heather run on the treadmill, it was noticeable that she occasionally had her right leg land closer to her body’s midline instead of directly under her hip joint. I never saw the left leg do this. This was not a huge amount by any means, about ¾” to 1” of deviation. Less experienced and weaker runners commonly land with both of their feet heading toward midline, often because of decreased hip muscle strength or activation issues. Also, it was apparent that her right ankle was rarely moving through its full available range of motion and this would cause her to prematurely lift her heel from the ground during the running stride and lead to a rocking over the base of the big toe. It also caused the right heel to whip out just before her foot lifted from the treadmill. By relying on the foot to do the work of the ankle she has demanded more from the muscles and tissue within the bottom of the foot.

Left heel remains in alignment

Left heel remains in alignment

Right heel whipping laterally

Right heel whipping laterally

In general, many of these are meaningful asymmetries, or imbalances. Distance runners don’t do well with asymmetries because we go through thousands of repetitions and then fatigue later in a run makes any flaw even more catastrophic. Heather’s physical examination correlates well with her running technique. She uses what strength and motion she has to perform the task of running. Can we fix a couple things? Yes!

Afterwards, I used trigger point dry needling on her right foot to help with the tenderness and pain there. I also used the needling at her lower leg to loosen some of the calf muscles. This did cause soreness at her calf but upon standing, her heel pain was gone. I then taught her a handful of exercises to reinforce the motion increases at the ankle and teach her how to allow the ankle’s available motion. This ankle motion will not translate directly into her running right away and will first take work in her home exercise program. She also started working on the “penguin walk” activation exercise to help her learn to use the gluteus medius more on the right side with running. Heather was able to return to running at a high level on the same day with a 6 mile tempo run at 6:30 per mile pace with minimal pain.

We will meet again in the next couple weeks to see how she is progressing with her exercises and spend more time on the manual therapy required to increase her ankle motion and decrease stress on the foot and lower leg.

Achilles tendonitis: Early self-treatment and when it's gone too far, Part 1

I was running with a friend a few weeks ago, and he told me that he was recently trying to get back into running because he had been having trouble with his Achilles tendon for multiple years. I just kept thinking how that would be super frustrating yet could have been prevented.

News flash: it’s hard to stop a runner from running. Runners are too good at tolerating pain, to the point that it can be detrimental. And it usually is. There’s a good chance that over half of us are going to have a running injury in the next year (if you are a data nerd, a good systematic review of studies can be found here), and for older runners particularly it’s quite possibly going to be at the Achilles tendon.

The Achilles tendon undergoes an enormous amount of force with running. Something to the tune of 8-10 times your bodyweight. Couple that huge force with thousands of repetitions, poor muscle elasticity (because you keep skipping the foam roller), aging tissue, your 10-mile jump in weekly mileage 2 weeks ago and some unstable foot mechanics and you have a recipe for overuse injury. It’s one thing to have an overuse injury and take care of it correctly. It’s another entirely to let it linger for months that become years. At that point it’s actually becoming “tendinosis” and no longer has the same inflammatory response your initial injury had, making it less likely to heal.

Swollen left Achilles tendon

Swollen left Achilles tendon

The best thing to do is take care of it correctly as soon as you feel symptoms. Do not ignore it. With a new injury try the classics: ice, rest, over-the-counter anti-inflammatories, foam rolling the calf (better late than never), a change of footwear and mileage reduction. I prefer the ice-water-in-a-bucket method for any foot and ankle tendonitis. Try dunking your foot and heel in a gallon of water with two to three trays of ice for 10 minutes. Do this three to five times a day. Rolling could be with a foam roller, tennis ball, massage stick or baker's rolling pin for 2-3 minutes on the calf muscle only

Rest and decreased mileage for a runner is ROUGH. It can be relative rest, like going for a swim or water running. Cycling is questionable because it is still demanding to the calf and Achilles depending on your setup and technique. You don't want to be pedaling with your foot pointed in a downward direction or having the heel drop below pedal level at the bottom of the pedal stroke. If you have fancy cycling shoes the clipless pedal cleats need to be moved rearward a couple millimeters temporarily. Maybe get in a workout by lifting weights. (You better not be saying “oh heck no, I’m a real runner and runners don’t lift weights!”) 

If you have a good level of ankle range of motion that allows you to fully squat and keep your feet flat like in the picture below, I wouldn’t focus on stretching the calf as a primary remedy. Directly working on the calf muscle to break up any trigger points or adhesions in the fascia is a better way to go. Hence the importance of regular foam rolling when you aren't hurt. Why is this? Certainly in the clinic I have people with Achilles tendonitis stretch if their total motion availability is poor. But stretching probably will not fix the problem. Stretching gradually lengthens the tendon and muscle, but the problem is not usually with length. Rather, the tendon has not tolerated the loads you put on it, and it became inflamed as a result. Stretching is not going to do much to make the tendon tolerate loads better. By rolling and making the muscle more supple it can help take load from the tendon. 

Full squat, feet flat

Full squat, feet flat

Next week we will get into some of rolling techniques, Physical Therapy treatment and when you should seek a professional's help. 

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