Most of us are familiar with the Greek myth of Achilles, who was held by his heel and dipped in the River Styx, granting him near invincibility. He grew into a formidable warrior, but eventually was shot in the heel by a poisonous arrow, leading to his downfall. Thus, this weak spot by the heel is now referred to as the Achilles tendon. Although it is unlikely that any average person or athlete will be shot in the heel with a poisonous arrow, it is still a weak point for all.
What is the Achilles Tendon?
The Achilles tendon, also called the calcaneal tendon, is band-like fibrous tissue that connects the calf muscles to the calcaneus (heel bone), making it the longest tendon in the body. This tendon pulls on the heel when the calf muscles flex. This motion is needed to help people stand on their toes while walking, running, and jumping—actions commonly needed for athletes.
Achilles Tendon Injuries
For all that the Achilles tendon does, it is susceptible to injury because of the extensive tension placed on it and its limited blood supply. Moreover, athletes run a higher risk of suffering injury to the Achilles tendon due to overuse, excessively tight muscles or tendons in the legs, sudden movement in the ankles, or issues regarding the anatomy of the feet. For any of these causes, if the Achilles tendon becomes swollen, inflamed, or irritated, it is called tendonitis. There are two types of tendonitis:
- Insertional Achilles tendonitis affects the area of the tendon where it meets the calcaneus. This is commonly associated with bone spurs (extra bone growth) slightly above the insertion of the Achilles tendon, causing those with this condition to have tenderness in that area.
- Non-insertional Achilles tendonitis involves small tears in the middle fibers of the tendon, leading to it eventually breaking down. This type of tendonitis tends to affect younger people who are active, especially professional and amateur athletes.
Not only can the Achilles tendon suffer from tendonitis, it can also suffer a rupture (tear) of the tendon partially or even completely. These ruptures are often caused by a sudden increase in strain on the tendon, such as falling into a crater or dropping from a height.
To reduce one’s chance at injuring their Achilles tendon, here are some tips:
- When increasing activity, such as trying out a new sport or following a new exercise program, increase the intensity gradually. By increasing gradually rather than suddenly, one can avoid applying extra strain on the tendon.
- Stretch and strengthen the calf muscles and Achilles tendon so the calf muscles are kept loose and can absorb more force and impact. Neglecting to stretch before exercising will increase tightness in the body, thereby increasing your chances of sustaining other injuries.
- Consider proper footwear for the intended activity. Appropriate support can help prevent strain and stress on the heel and surrounding muscles.
Medically Reviewed by Ryan Culver, D.P.M., Q.M.E.