Don’t Let Your Achilles Tendon Become Your Achilles Heel
By Western Berks on March 21st, 2016
A healthy Achilles tendon is vital for top sports performance. Unfortunately, like the mythical hero killed by an arrow to the heel for whom it’s named, the body’s largest tendon is also extremely vulnerable to injury.
Achilles tendon injuries, ranging from painful strains to debilitating ruptures, are common among athletes. Several factors can predispose you to Achilles tendon ruptures. Poor conditioning is often the culprit. Jumping, tripping, a sudden shift in direction (often associated with impacts or landings) or a blow to the back of the leg can cause the calf muscles to contract, putting damaging stress on a stiff Achilles tendon.
Weekend warriors are especially vulnerable, as are athletes over the age of 30. Aging tendons lose elasticity, making injury more likely. Other risks include prior Achilles tendon injuries, changes in training intensity or activity level, running on hard surfaces or hills, worn-out shoes, prior steroid injections in the tendon, and tight and/or weak calf muscles.
Despite the frequency of Achilles tendon injury, you can take steps to avoid it. Prevention can be summed up in two words: stretch and strengthen! While good overall physical condition is a factor, regular gentle stretching of the calf muscles is essential. Stretch your calf to the point where you feel a pull but not pain, then hold the stretch without bouncing. Calf strengthening includes heel raises (rising up onto toes) and controllably lowering from this position, often performed on a stair-step to enhance the range of motion exercised.
Alternate high- and low-impact sports; for example, run one day and walk or bike the next. Be diligent about warm-ups and cool-downs. Avoid excessive heel-stressing activities, like hill running and jumping. If your Achilles tendon gets sore, rest it.
If you get hurt, apply ice to the injury and see your physician as soon as possible, especially if you experience severe calf muscle cramping, swelling or bruising behind the ankle. A bad strain can take several weeks to heal, but physical therapy can ease the pain and help you return to normal activities. Splinting or casting can treat small tears, but more severe ruptures usually require surgery and can put you out of action for six months to a year. Early intervention from a physical therapist can keep the damage to a minimum.