The Achilles Tendon: What is it and How Do I Know if Mine is Hurt?

Ancient Greek culture tells the story of Achilles, a hero of the Trojan War and protagonist of the Iliad, whose biggest weakness, and ultimate downfall, was the place on his heel where his mother held on to him as she dipped him into the River Styx to try and make him immortal. This story, passed down through the generations, was eventually the inspiration for the name of the Achilles tendon, which is located on the back of the heel.

The fact that this story has been shared since ancient times and gave way to a modern medical term is a clear sign that the tendon is important to the human body—even in the 21st Century. Just ask Kyle Brindza. In February, the recently signed kicker for the New York Jets reported that he had torn his Achilles tendon, effectively putting him out of play for the entire season.

For many athletes, any injury that effects the ability to play is a bad one. But a torn Achilles tendon is arguable one of the worst—and incredibly painful. Thankfully, there are procedures that can heal and restore this key area, but one of the first steps to battling an Achilles tendon injury is understanding it.

What and where is the Achilles tendon?
The Achilles tendon is a band of tissues that runs down the leg, between the calf and the heel. It is essential for helping the foot point downward and is key for walking, running, and jumping. In short, it is important for anyone who wants to do more than lay in bed all day.

How do I know if I’ve hurt it?
If you’ve hurt your Achilles tendon, you’ll feel it! The tendon can tear or rupture, leading to extreme pain and swelling. It will also be difficult to walk as your normally would, or to even bend your foot. Because these symptoms mimic those of other conditions, it is important to speak with a specialist to get a proper diagnosis.

What causes an Achilles injury?

There are several common factors that can lead to an injury, including overuse, poor stretching, getting back into exercise or activity after a break from it, taking certain types of antibiotics or having steroid injections in the ankle joint, or running on challenging terrain.

What can be done to fix it?
That depends, but it usually includes surgery, though minimally invasive techniques are sometimes an option.

The most common Achilles tendon procedure is a rupture repair. During a rupture repair surgery, a surgeon will stitch the tendon back together, sometimes reinforcing it with other tendon tissue.

If a rupture is not treated right away, the tendon can degenerate to the point that it is no longer salvageable. If that is the case, a surgeon can often recreate the tendon using an FHL tendon transfer. The flexor hallucis longus, or FHL tendon, is another tendon in the lower leg which can be detached and woven into what is left of the damaged Achilles tendon and then reattached, basically making it a new Achilles tendon.

What else should I know?
Recovery takes time, and often includes physical rehabilitation and/or assistance with walking, but full function and recovery are the norm.