Are there ways to reduce the chances of injuring the Achilles tendon?
The cost-benefit principle is typically applied to financial matters, but it’s fairly easy to see how it can also relate to many other areas of life. Basically, this means that the more benefit we derive from something, the greater the cost is likely to be. We can use the Achilles tendon as a prime example of this relationship.
There are hundreds of tendons in the human body and the Achilles tendon is the largest and strongest. Connecting the heel bone and the muscles running up the back of the leg, this powerful tendon makes it possible for us to stand, walk, run, jump and climb stairs, as well as all of the seemingly superhuman movements performed by professional athletes.
We often use the term “Achilles heel” as a metaphor describing someone’s weak point. Those familiar with mythology or books and movies about the Trojan War know that Achilles was one of the best-known heroes of ancient legend. Although his father was mortal, his mother, Thetis, was a god. Because she was afraid that Achilles had inherited his father’s mortality, Thetis did all she could to make him like the gods. She knew the powers of the water of the River Styx to impart invulnerability to anyone dipped in it, but when Thetis immersed Achilles in the water, she held onto his heel so tightly that the water never touched his heel. This left him with the invulnerability of the gods everywhere but his heel, which, as we know, is where he was shot with a poison arrow and died.
We have named the strongest tendon in the body after Achilles because of its strength. When we are using it to facilitate movements like running and jumping, it is absorbing forces equivalent to 10 times our body weight. That’s a lot of benefit from one tendon, right? It then follows that the cost of seriously injuring the Achilles tendon would be significant.
An Achilles tendon rupture is the result of a tear to the tendon. This can be a partial tear or it can mean that the tendon has been completely severed. Symptoms are usually instantaneous and extreme and can include immediate loss of strength in the ankle, as well as the inability to bend the foot downward or lift up on the toes of the affected foot. The individual will not be able to push off with that foot when walking, and that may cause the foot to drag.
Causes of Achilles Tendon Injury
Some of the risk factors that can contribute to Achilles tendon injuries include wearing high heels, taking certain medications, and having fallen arches but the most common cause is the type of sudden movements that are part of sporting activities, especially:
What these sports all have in common are quick movements, sudden shifts in direction, or bursts of speeding up or slowing down.
Preventing Achilles Tendon Rupture
There will always be Achilles tendon injuries in professional sports. No amount of conditioning can compensate for the extreme demands made at that level. That said, for most of us, Achilles tendon injuries can be prevented or, at least, reduced with proper conditioning and common sense. Always warm-up before engaging in physical activity and gradually increase duration and intensity. Wear proper footwear and make sure that it fits. Last, but certainly not least, listen to your body and don’t push it beyond its limits.
If you have questions about an Achilles tendon rupture or injury or about any other foot or ankle concerns, Dr. Christopher Hubbard is a board-certified Orthopedic Surgeon with Ortho-Care Wayne in Passaic County New Jersey and is the former Chief of the Foot and Ankle Service at Mount Sinai Beth Israel in NYC.
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