Achilles heel is used as shorthand, meaning someone’s weak spot. But why is that? Is the Achilles tendon really your most vulnerable spot? Well, if you’re trying out a new exercise routine or ramping up an old one and pain flares up at the back of your foot, your Achilles tendon may, in fact, become your Achilles heel.
What is an Achilles tendon?
Your Achilles tendon is that long, elastic-like band at the back of your ankle, just above your heel. It’s one of the longest tendons in your body, stretching from your heel bone all the way up to your calf muscle. It’s what gives you a literal spring in your step, allowing you to flex and point your feet as needed for walking, running, and jumping.
Named after the mythical Greek character Achilles, who was dipped in the River Styx as a child by his mother, making him an invincible warrior. But, she held him by his heel when he went in leaving it vulnerable.
What are the most common problems?
The most common issues for this area are Achilles tendonitis and Achilles tendonosis.
Tendonitis is an inflammation of the tendon. It can start as a dull pain and stiffness, gradually getting worse. You might feel pain or soreness close to your heel, especially when standing on your toes or flexing your foot. Swelling and tenderness around the heel are also common. Pain from this movement is usually mild and short-lived.
However, if condition gets worse, it can lead to Achilles tendonosis, which is a degeneration of the tendon. In this case, the organized structure of the tendon has been compromised, and small tears start to form. The tendon can become enlarged, with small nodules forming on the injured tissue. It’s not common, but a full rupture can result from tendonosis.
Achilles tendonitis and Achilles tendonosis can happen to anyone, but athletes or those ramping up their physical activity face the most risk. A sudden increase of repetitive activity puts too much strain on the tendon—it needs time to heal or the small, daily injuries build to something more serious.
What treatment is available?
A physiotherapist will determine a course of treatment based on how badly the tendon is injured and how long it’s been that way. The earlier you catch this injury, the easier the recovery. Recommended treatments may include:
- Rest, avoiding any physical activity that isn’t necessary
- Ice, to reduce swelling
- Anti-inflammatory medication, like ibuprofen (helps with pain and swelling)
- Strengthening exercises, such as calf raises or ankle extensions
- Soft-tissue massage
- Therapeutic ultrasound
If you notice your Achilles tendon is hurting, it’s important to get an assessment as early as possible so that you can recover quickly. Exerpeience heel pain, soreness or other discomfort? Find a pt Health clinic near you.