Posts Tagged ‘Achilles Tendinitis’

Shin Splints: A Guide to that Nagging Leg Pain

by G. John Mullen, DPT 2011 |

Weekend warriors from Kyoto to Santa Barbra push their bodies to the limit between work, chores, driving to pick up their kids from extracurricular activities and who knows what else. Unfortunately, these hectic schedules often lead to inadequate injury prevention.  This inadequacy manifests itself in workouts as warm-ups are shortened and equipment is used improperly to save time.  These deviations from your normal training plan can lead to a number of injuries including shin splints.  A “shin splint” has become a catchall term used for any injury in the greater shin region and, unfortunately, leads to improper self-diagnosis and management.  What are all these things that can go wrong with your shins?  The three most common injuries of the lower leg are: medial tibial stress syndrome, stress fractures and compartment syndrome.
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12 2010

The Achilles’: Your Weakest Link

by G. John Mullen, DPT 2011 |

Achilles’ tendon injuries have been present since the time of the Greek Gods and Goddesses, (remember Achilles from Greek Mythology?).  Achilles’ is the burly, handsome warrior from the Trojan War legends who could only be harmed by a lethal blow to his Achilles tendon…and the name was born.  Contrary to popular belief, this warrior’s surname was not Pitt.  What we really want to know, however, is how does the Achilles tendon affect us today?

We all witnessed the devastating loss Michigan State suffered to underdog, Butler University, in the men’s NCAA basketball tournament. The Spartans put in a valiant effort despite the season-ending loss of Kalin Lucas, a pivotal player averaging 12.3 points per game.  Lucas tore his Achilles’ tendon during the game against Maryland (tragic, we know). Achilles’ tendon tears are not unique to the collegiate super-athlete; weekend warriors are just as susceptible to Achilles’ tendon tears as the pros.  An Achilles’ tear is debilitating, requiring surgery and extensive rehabilitation in most cases.  Successful surgery and rehabilitation of a torn Achilles’ tendon requires a thorough understanding of the anatomy, cause of the injury, patient’s unique health condition & lifestyle and patient’s athletic activities.  These factors are essential to preventing a re-repture of the tendon.

Stat Fact: Most Achilles’ tears occur 2-6 cm above the Achilles’ insertion into the calcaneus, the heel bone in the foot (3).


The Achilles’ is a complex tendon whose rarity is secondary to the fact that the tendon crosses two joints.  Multi-joint crossing places increased stress on the Achilles’, resulting in the tendon’s high injury rate.  Everyday activities like walking place repeated stress on the tendon.  The tendon is the composite of two muscles in the calf: the gastrocnemius (the medial and lateral heads which cross the back of the knee) and the soleus (the bulk of the calf). The tendon is surrounded by two sheaths (which are called “paratendon” and “mesotenon”).  The mesotenon is responsible for the nourishing blood flow to the tendon.  Diminished blood flow is seen at the bottom of the Achilles’ tendon and is responsible for the high rate of tears in this region. The majority of the tendon is made of Type 1 collagen (4).

Stat Fact: The Achilles’ tendon twists in a spiral motion as it wraps around the foot and inserts into the calcaneous.

Types of Achilles’ Tears and Risk Factors

Athletic Achilles’ tears are typically acute injuries caused by a “high rate of loading” associated with specific movements which include landing, pivoting or sweet juke moves on the field…talk about all-time backfires! Acute injuries commonly occur at the distal portion (i.e. the point farthest towards your heel) of the tendon where blood flow is diminished. Out-of-shape athletes returning to high-impact sports make up the largest portion of these injuries.  Trauma from a foreign object is another common cause of an acute Achilles’ tear (i.e. Tonya Harding action to the back of your ankle).  These injuries are not pretty, but if you’ve seen the movie, Saw, you may remember one of the hostages having their Achilles’ sliced to prevent escape.  Uncommon but horrific to say the least.  Tears during motor vehicle crashes are more typical and can be equally debilitating.  Chronic Achilles’ tendon injuries can also eventually lead to tears. Nagging Achilles’ tendonosis (chronic inflammation of the Achilles’ tendon) transforms the molecular properties of the tendinous collagen making the tendon soft and pliable.  Pliability is the Achilles’ kryptonite (not arrows as Hollywood would have you believe)!  As we age, we are more prone to tendon tears.  Two factors lead to increased Achilles’ tears as we age: 1) the transformation that takes place in your tendon’s cartilage and 2) hypovascularity (impaired blood flow) making previously injured, older athletes more prone to Achilles’ tears.

Stat Fact: The Achilles’ tendon is the strongest tendon in the body, absorbing up to 8x our body weight in force during athletic movements (2).

Surgery and Rehabilitation

Surgery is always the last option.  Debate surrounds the efficacy of surgery and rehabilitation in Achilles’ tears.  Studies show conflicting evidence in terms of recovery speed and re-rupture rates for individuals with and without surgery (5). There is further debate on the first phase of rehabilitation for both groups. One theory of rehabilitation promotes 6-8 weeks of immobilization via casting.  Casting is typically done in plantar-flexion (with your foot bent at 90 degrees to your calf) or in the neutral position (imagine your foot’s position as your leg hangs over the edge of the bed).  Immobilization is thought to allow collagen repair following surgery increasing stiffness and strength of the tendon. The other accepted method of rehabilitation is the exact opposite of immobilization: early mobilization. Early mobilization is believed to promote revascularization of the injured tendon. Revascularization is believed to enhance strength (4).  More importantly early mobilization is associated with similar functional gains and a low re-rupture rate (5).  These positive attributes make early mobilization an important variable for surgical and non-surgical treatment of Achilles’ tendon tears.

Rehabilitation regimens vary depending on the surgeon’s approach (early mobility vs. early immobilization).  Early mobilization seems to be gaining momentum with recent publications.  A typical early mobility rehabilitation protocol is listed below:

Postoperative Exercise Program (1)

Group 1 (early mobilization)

Time: 0-3 wk

  1. Flexion and extension of the toes in a supine position; 25 × 3 series

  2. Plantar flexion of the ankle and dorsiflexion to neutral in supine position

  3. Extension of the knee in a sitting position (hold 2 s); 10 × 3 series

  4. Flexion of the knee in a prone position; 10 × 3 series, 3 times daily

  5. Extension of the hip in a prone position (hold 2 s); 10 × 3 series

Time: 3-6 wk

Same as week 0-3

Time: 6-9 wk

1. Ankle flexion and extension exercises with manual help

2. Rotation of the ankles in both directions; 30 × 3 series, 3 times daily

3. Standing on the toes and heels alternately; 30 × 3 series, 3 times daily

4. Ankle extension exercises against a rubber strip; 20 × 3 series, 3 times daily

5. Ankle stretching exercises to flexion with the help of a rubber strip; 30 s × 5 series, 3 times daily

6. Stretching of the calf muscle by standing with the leg to be stretched straight behind and the other leg bent in front and leaning the body forward, with support from a wall or chair; 30 s × 5 series, 3 times daily

7. Stretching exercises for the toes and ankle against the hand in a sitting position; 30 s × 5 series, 3 times daily

Time: 9 wk

1. Raising and lowering of the heel, first with both feet at the same time and later with 1 foot; 20 × 5 series, 3 times daily

Exercises against a rubber strip for

Ankle extension 20 × 5 series, 3 times daily

Ankle flexion 20 × 5 series, 3 times daily

Ankle abduction 20 × 5 series, 3 times daily

Ankle adduction 20 × 5 series, 3 times daily

Stretching of the calf muscle against the wall; 30 × 5 series, 3 times daily

Standing with the knee somewhat flexed; 30 × 5 series, 3 times daily

With any surgery, you must take note of the potential complications. At the same time, the re-rupture rates in Achilles’ tendon tears are significant in the conservative non-surgical group.  A notable complication with Achilles’ Tendon surgical repair is sural nerve dissection.  The sural nerve is damaged in approximately 6% of Achilles’ tendon repairs.  Sural nerve damage can lead to impaired sensation to the dorsal (back) aspect of the heel (2).

Stat Fact: Non-surgical Achilles’ Tendon treatment has a re-rupture rate of 12.6%, nearly 4x the 3.5% re-rupture rate seen in the surgical repair group (2).


While many people believe that stretching is the key to preventing Achilles’ tendon rupture, this may not actually be the case.  Stretching may reduce the number of tendon injuries, but a more thorough approach is needed to further minimize your risk of injury.  Most Achilles’ tendon tears are caused by high force movements.  As your coach always said, “Practice like your play!”  It only makes sense to practice these high force movements via plyometrics to train your body to adapt to these high levels of strain. Therefore a stretching regimen in combination with a light plyometric routine makes perfect sense.  A simple plyometric routine (for example, ankle hops progressing to higher impact squat jumps and then repeated hops) can be utilized before exercise to minimize your risk of injury.  Who doesn’t want strong enough Achilles’ tendons to dunk like Dwight Howard?

Questions? E-mail G. John Mullen:


1. Kangas J, Pajala A, Ohtonen P, Leppilahti J. Achilles tendon elongation after rupture repair: a randomized comparison of 2 postoperative regimens. Am J Sports Med. Jan 2007;35(1):59-64.

2. Molloy A, Wood E. Complications of the treatment of Achilles tendon ruptures. Foot Ankle Clin. Dec 2009;14(4):745-759.

3. Park D, Chou L. Stretching for prevention of Achilles tendon injuries: a review of the literature. Foot Ankle Int. Dec 2006;27(12):1086-1095.

4. Strom A, Casillas M. Achilles tendon rehabilitation. Foot Ankle Clin. Dec 2009;14(4):773-782.

5. Twaddle B, Poon P. Early motion for Achilles tendon ruptures: is surgery important? A randomized, prospective study. Am J Sports Med. Dec 2007;35(12):2033-2038.


04 2010

Tendon Injuries: Getting Back to Go

by G. John Mullen, DPT 2011 |

With the Vancouver Winter Olympics in full swing, tendon injury is a hot topic on news channels across the globe.  Sports fans from every nation will be cheering on their favorite athletes and crossing their fingers for speedy recoveries from accidents Olympic Speed Skaterincurred during the intense competition in the coming weeks.  Shoulder pain, elbow pain, ankle pain?  These joints are common sources of pain for professional athletes and law-abiding citizens alike.  Whether you have golfer’s elbow, tennis elbow, speed skater’s knee, shoulder impingement, jumper’s knee, Achilles tendon pain, you are suffering from a “tendinopathy.”  Tendons, which connect muscles to bones, are composed of collagen.  Tendinitis is the most common term associated with tendinopathy. Tendinitis is the acute injury of a tendon and is typically associated with inflammation (note that “-itis” means inflammation). Tendinosis is a term used less commonly but refers to the process in which tendinitis becomes chronic (lasting greater than 3 weeks). To understand the disease of tendinopathy, it is essential to understand the design of a tendon, common causes, treatments for the different types of tendinopathies and what you can do to prevent these disorders.

Stat Fact: The prevalence of Achilles tendinosis has been estimated to be between 11% and 24% in runners, whereas the prevalence rate for patellar tendinosis in basketball and volleyball players has been recorded as high as 32% and 45%, respectively4.  That’s a lot of tendon inflammation.

Tendon Architecture

As we mentioned earlier, the tendon is primarily composed of collagen, more specifically type I collagen (there are 29 different types of collagen in the body but 4 main types make up 90% of our collagen).  Tendon tissue has a poor blood supply (only 1/3 Achilles Tendonof the blood supply that muscles have) which means that it takes tendons notably longer than muscles to heal.  Following an acute injury, the tendon strained becomes inflamed (filled with cells trying to repair the tissue).  After chronic use of the tendon, type III collagen becomes predominant.  This change in collagen will make the tendon larger due to increased collagen rather than from inflammation.   Along with the increase in collagen comes an increase in water in the tendon as well.  These two changes make the tendon thicker which you notice as increased stiffness.  At the same time, the tendon becomes more compliant leading to an increased rate of tendon strain after a chronic tendon injury.  Cadaveric studies suggest after a chronic tendon injury, the strain increases causing a decrease in stiffness and strength.  Strain is “the amount of displacement with an external load placed on the object” or, in the cadaveric study, “the amount of displacement increased after injury.”  Essentially, it means the amount of laxity (“looseness”) in the tendon after injury.

Common Causes

The majority of tendinopathies are due to overuse and are caused by such activities as:

  • Rapid increase in usage (New Year resolutions…)

  • Not warming up properly

  • Changes in footwear (for lower extremity tendinopathies)

  • Weak surrounding muscles

  • Improper muscle length or flexibility

Stat Fact: Achilles tendinopathy is a common overuse injury, accounting for 11% of all running injuries2.

Tendinitis Treatment

Tendinitis is an acute tendon injury associated with inflammation. Tendinitis is caused by an accident that causes damage to the tendon or chronic use leading to tendon irritation.  The length of this inflammation is variable, therefore the term tendinopathy is used to classify all the tendon injuries Icing a Knee Injury(you know doctors don’t like to put timelines on healing!).  The majority of treatment for tendinitis consists of anti-inflammatory medication or a cortisone shot (used only in extreme situations) administered by the physician.  The list of anti-inflammatory drugs is extensive, including as Ibuprofen, Motrin, Naproxen, Celebrex, and many more.  Physical therapists can help reduce inflammation with a number of treatment modalities (electrical stimulation, low level laser therapy, ultrasound, ice) that can decrease pain and inflammation.  The last and the most important treatment for tendinitis is a temporary discontinuation of the activity that caused this inflammation.  As stated, true tendinitis is from an acute accident therefore discontinuing that activity while the tendon heals makes sense…let’s agree to agree on this one.

Tendinosis Treatment

Treatment of tendinosis is more researched than the tendinitis.  In general, injuries that present to physical therapy and primary care doctors are tendinoses.  Remember, tendinosis develops from long-standing tendinitis and is often mistaken for tendinitis due to the increase in tendon size.  However, this increase is size is due to remodelling of collagen as opposed to the inflammation we see in tendinitis.  Recent studies show that exercise is beneficial for healing tendinosis.  More specifically, eccentric overload training appears to have optimal results.  What is “eccentric overload training”, you ask?  An eccentric exercise is an exercise that lengthens a muscle.  For example, Eccentric Overload Training - Calf Raisesif you are performing a squat, lowering your body down is the eccentric phase of the exercise on your thighs and returning to the start position is the concentric phase for your thighs.  Overload eccentric exercise training studies suggest eccentric training increases stiffness of the tendon and help change the tendon back to type I collagen.  Increasing the tendon stiffness provides the support your muscles need to contract so that it can maintain the muscle in the position where it produces the most force.  Let’s look at another example:  Achiles tendinitis is common in runners.  Mix in a little hard headedness and a desire to keep running despite injury and you have yourself the perfect storm for the development of a tendinosis.   To treat this population of patients, a 12-week exercise program consisting of heel drops has shown excellent results.  This program uses high repetitions of the exercise: 3 sets of 15 repetitions two times a day with progressively increasing external weight (you can add weight to backpack that you wear during the exercise)1. One key during this exercise is to only perform the eccentric phase of the heel drop with your injured leg.  To do this, slowly lower yourself down on the injured leg (the eccentric phase) and then return to your tippy toes by concentrically using the healthy leg.  This type of eccentric exercise can be used in any type of tendinosis.

Stat Fact: In the study mentioned, participants noted a decrease in pain from an average of 81/100 to 5/100 where 0 represents no pain1.

Double Stat Fact: Studies suggest that eccentric exercise can change tendon stiffness from a 14% loss in stiffness to a 10% gain in 14 weeks3.

Preventing Tendinopathy

Many times tendinopathies can be prevented with proper warm-up and progression of exercise.  Include proper stretching and eccentric muscle training to muscles at risk for your activity and you will have created an adequate prevention program.

Examples of eccentric exercises for common tendinopathies:Heel Drop

Heel drop for Achilles Tendinopathy:

Begin with your foot on a surface that allows your heel to drop below the height of your foot, while holding onto a handrail, banister or child (ok, maybe not a child) lower yourself slowly on the injured leg.  Push yourself back up on your non-injured leg.

Theraband ankle inversion for Posterior Tibialis Tendinopathy:

Ankle InversionBegin in a sitting position and put loop theraband (an thick elastic band) in which the loop is on the inside of your foot.  Move your foot down and in without resistance and then attach the theraband around the foot with high tension.  In a controlled manner, allow the foot return to the up and out position.

Wrist Extension and Flexion for Golfer’s and Tennis Elbow

Begin in a sitting position and allow your elbow to rest on your thigh.  For tennis elbow, begin with your hand facing the floor, with a weight in your hand.  Slowly lower the weight and then use the other hand to bring the weight back up to the starting position.  For golfer’s elbow, begin in the same starting position, but with your hand facing the ceiling and then lower the weight to the floor.

Wrist Flexion & Extension

Rehab Recommendations:

During recovery, the following recommendations should be followed for all eccentric exercises2:

  • 3 sets of 15 repetitions

  • Slow, controlled movements

  • Exercise should elicit a moderate amount of pain

  • Passive return to starting position with assistance from the non-injured side

  • Increase load when pain is minimal or absent

  • Perform exercises twice a day

  • Avoid aggravating activities for 4-6 weeks during eccentric rehabilitation



1. Alfredson H, Pietilä T, Jonsson P, Lorentzon R. Heavy-load eccentric calf muscle training for the treatment of chronic Achilles tendinosis. Am J Sports Med.26(3):360-366.

2. Chang H, Burke A, Glass R. JAMA patient page. Achilles tendinopathy. JAMA. Jan 2010;303(2):188.

3. Narici M, Maganaris C. Adaptability of elderly human muscles and tendons to increased loading. J Anat. Apr 2006;208(4):433-443.

4. Wasielewski N, Kotsko K. Does eccentric exercise reduce pain and improve strength in physically active adults with symptomatic lower extremity tendinosis? A systematic review. J Athl Train.42(3):409-421.


02 2010

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