Don’t Be a Heel: Prevent Achilles Tendon Injuries

Posted by on Wednesday, February 15th, 2012

The descriptions always start the same way: “Suddenly I heard a loud popping noise…”

That’s usually followed by extreme pain and an inability to use the lower half of the leg in any useful way. Yup, it’s a ruptured Achilles tendon, an injury that’s annoying and painful for anyone, but completely debilitating if you run or play any kind of sport. The good news, though, is that you can do a number of things to try to prevent these injuries. One is to make some adjustments in your shoes.

First some Achilles Tendon 101. The Achilles tendon is the thickest, strongest tendon in the human body. It connects your heel to your calf muscles. Any time you run, walk, dance, jump, or just stand on your toes to reach a high shelf, you’re using your Achilles tendon. Rupture your Achilles and almost any normal activity becomes impossible for a pretty long time; sports fans know that when they hear an athlete has ruptured his Achilles, his season is over. It’s not just devastating news for pro athletes, but for anyone who’s active, even just someone who enjoys working out at home on their own.

As befits so powerful, important a body part, the Achilles tendon has quite a story behind its name. According to Greek mythology, the sea-nymph Thetis knew that her baby son was going to be a great war hero but would die in battle. In an effort to make him immortal, she bathed him in the River Styx. However, she held him in the water by his heels, thus preventing them from getting the water’s protection. Achilles became one of the greatest of the Greek warriors during the Trojan War (you know, the story told in The Iliad, famous for that tricky wooden horse) but was killed when the Trojan prince Paris shot him by piercing his heel with an arrow. So of course you can understand why we refer to someone’s weakness as an “Achilles heel.”

There are three types of Achilles tendon injuries: Achilles tendinosis, or a strain of the Achilles; a partial rupture of the Achilles; and a complete rupture. Achilles tendinosis is basically soreness on the back of your heel. A rupture, as we discussed earlier, will completely lay you out and probably will require surgery. A partial tear gives you some function, but is still a bad injury; people often mistake a partial tear for just tendinosis. If that soreness lingers or you feel like your movement is really impaired, you should get it checked out to find out if you have a tear so you can get the proper treatment.

The best way to avoid Achilles tendon injuries is to warm up and stretch properly before doing any athletic activity. Check out this guide to some stretches and strengthening exercises you can do to help your Achilles. However, the right shoes can aid you in preventing Achilles tendon injuries and in your recovery if something does go wrong.

A podiatrist told me to wear shoes with a slight heel every so often, after he noticed that I mostly wore running shoes and flip flops. He explained that a little bit of a heel will give your Achilles a chance to relax a little, so it’s not constantly stretched to its fullest, as it is when your standing or walking on total flats.

Most running shoes slightly elevate the heel area. Avoid extremes–make sure any running shoes you consider don’t raise the heel too much or too little. Also stay away from shoes that provide too much cushioning, as that will overstretch your Achilles tendon.

If you do have an Achilles tendon injury, then you’ll likely be encourage to put heel lifts into your shoes while your recovering. These are small little inserts that you just put into your shoe to help raise your heels a little. As your tendon heals (or heel heals), you can gradually reduce the height of the lift. Eventually most people will be able to get rid of them altogether, although people with foot shapes that tend to lead to injuries might need orthotics.

It’s important to make sure you choose the right kind of aids for your feet. If you need some help , contact us at The Center for Podiatric Care and Sports Medicine. Dr. Josef J. GeldwertDr. Katherine Lai, and Dr. Ryan Minara have helped thousands of people get back on their feet.

If you have any foot problems or pain, contact The Center for Podiatric Care and Sports MedicineDr. Josef J. GeldwertDr. Katherine Lai, and Dr. Ryan Minara have helped thousands of people get back on their feet. Unfortunately, we cannot give diagnoses or treatment advice online. Please make an appointment to see us if you live in the NY metropolitan area or seek out a podiatrist in your area.