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Physical Therapist's Guide to Achilles Tendinopathy

Achilles tendinopathy is an irritation of the Achilles tendon. Achilles tendon pain is one of the most common types of pain felt behind the heel and up the back of the ankle when walking or running. Although Achilles tendinopathy affects both active and inactive individuals, 24% of athletes develop the condition, and an estimated 50% of runners will experience Achilles tendon pain in their running careers. In all individuals, Achilles tendinopathy can result in a limited ability to walk, climb stairs, or participate in recreational activities. Physical therapists help people with Achilles tendinopathy reduce pain in the affected area, and restore strength, flexibility, and mobility to the injured tendon and eliminate swelling when present.

What is Achilles Tendinopathy

Achilles tendinopathy is an irritation of the Achilles tendon, a thick band of tissue along the back of the lower leg that connects the calf muscles to the heel. The term “tendinopathy” refers to any problem with a tendon, either short- or long-term. The Achilles tendon transmits force from the calf muscles down to the foot when a person pushes the foot off the ground (eg, runs or jumps), and helps control the position of the ankle when the foot touches back down on the ground (eg, lands). Achilles tendinopathy results when the demand placed on the Achilles tendon is greater than its ability to function. The condition can occur after a single incident (acute injury) or after repetitive irritation or "microtrauma" (chronic injury). Most often, Achilles tendon pain is the result of repetitive trauma to the tendon that can result in chronic Achilles tendinopathy—a gradual breakdown of the tissue—and is most often treated with physical therapy.

Achilles tendinopathy is linked to several different factors, including:

  • Calf muscle tightness
  • Calf muscle weakness
  • Abnormal foot structure
  • Abnormal foot mechanics
  • Improper footwear
  • A change in an exercise routine or sport activity
  • Obesity

Pain can be present at any point along the tendon; the most common area to feel tenderness is just above the heel (known as midportion Achilles tendinopathy), although it may also be present where the tendon meets the heel (known as insertional Achilles tendinopathy).

How Does it Feel?

With Achilles tendinopathy, you may experience:

  • Tenderness in the heel or higher up in the Achilles tendon with manually applied pressure
  • Pain and stiffness with walking, at its worst with the first several steps
  • Tightness in the calf
  • Swelling in the back of the ankle

How Is It Diagnosed?

Your physical therapist will review your medical history and complete a thorough examination of your heel, ankle, and calf. Your physical therapist will assess your foot posture, strength, flexibility, and movement. This process may include watching you stand in a relaxed stance, walk, squat, step onto a stair, or do a heel raise. The motion and strength in other parts of your leg also will be assessed.

Your physical therapist may also ask questions regarding your daily activities, exercise regimens, and footwear, to identify other contributing factors to your condition.

Imaging techniques, such as X-ray or MRI, are often not needed to diagnose Achilles tendinopathy. Although it is unlikely that your condition will ultimately require surgery, your physical therapist will consult with other medical professionals, such as an orthopedist, to determine the best plan of treatment for your specific condition if it does not respond to conservative care.

How Can a Physical Therapist Help?

Physical therapy promotes recovery from Achilles tendinopathy by addressing issues such as pain or swelling of the affected area, and any lack of strength, flexibility, or body control. You and your physical therapist will work together to develop an individualized treatment program to help you achieve your specific goals in the safest and most effective way possible. Your treatment may include:

Education. Your physical therapist will work with you to identify any possible external factors causing your pain, such as faulty footwear or inappropriate movements or exercises. Your physical therapist will assess your footwear and recommend improvements, and develop a personalized exercise program to help ensure a pain-free return to your desired activities.

Pain management. Many pain-relief strategies may be implemented, such as applying ice to the area, putting the affected leg in a brace, using heel lifts, or using therapies such as iontophoresis (a medicated patch placed on the skin that is electrically charged and used to decrease pain and inflammation), or therapeutic ultrasound. These strategies can reduce the need for pain medication, including opioids.

Manual therapy. Your physical therapist may apply hands-on treatments to gently move your muscles and joints in order to improve their motion and function. These techniques often address areas that are difficult to treat on your own.

Range-of-motion treatments. Your ankle, foot, or knee joint may be moving improperly, causing increased strain on the Achilles tendon. Self-stretching and manual therapy techniques (massage and movement) applied to the lower body to help restore and normalize motion in the foot, ankle, knee, and hip can decrease this tension and restore full range of motion.

Gentle exercise. Loading of the tendon (applying weight or resistance to it) through exercise is beneficial for recovery from Achilles tendinopathy. You may begin by performing gentle strengthening exercises in a seated position (eg, pushing and pulling on a resistive band with your foot). You then may advance to exercises in a standing position (eg, standing heel raises).

Muscle-strengthening exercises. Muscle weakness or imbalance can result in excessive strain on the Achilles tendon. Based on your specific condition, your physical therapist will design an individualized, progressive, lower-extremity resistance program for you to help correct any weakness-associated movement errors that may be contributing to your pain.

Functional training. Once your pain eases and your strength and motion improve, you will need to safely transition back into more demanding activities. To minimize the tension placed on the Achilles tendon and your risk of repeated injury, it is important to teach your body safe, controlled movements. Based on your goals and movement assessment, your physical therapist will create a series of activities that will help you learn how to use and move your body correctly to safely perform the tasks required to achieve your goals.

If additional interventions are needed, such as injections, minimally invasive tendon procedures, or surgery, your physical therapist will work with you after your procedure to help you regain motion, strength, and function.

Can this Injury or Condition be Prevented?

Maintaining appropriate lower-extremity mobility and muscular strength, and paying particular attention to your exercise routine—especially changes in an exercise surface, the volume of exercises performed, and your footwear—are the best methods for preventing Achilles tendinopathy.

When you have experienced an injury, your physical therapist will help guide you through a process that will progressively reintegrate more demanding activities into your routine without aggravating your Achilles tendon. Keep in mind that returning to high-level activities too soon after injury can lead to another episode of pain.

Real Life Experiences

Kevin is a 45-year-old recreational distance runner training for his second 5K road race. He runs 3 to 4 days each week. Over the past 2 months, Kevin has begun to experience pain along the back of his ankle in his Achilles tendon. His pain is at its worst at the beginning of his training runs; he also experiences pain and stiffness when taking his first steps in the morning and after standing up from his desk at work. He typically performs stretches for 5 minutes before or after his runs; he is wearing running shoes that he purchased 10 months ago.

Kevin is becoming impatient as his pain is not improving, despite the fact that he has decreased the length of his runs. He is worried about his ability to train for and compete in an upcoming race, and consults his physical therapist.

Kevin’s physical therapist conducts a comprehensive examination of his motion, strength, balance, movement, and running mechanics. Kevin describes his typical daily running routine, including distance, pace, and running surface, his stretching routine, and his footwear. Based on these findings, his physical therapist diagnoses midportion Achilles tendinopathy.

Kevin and his physical therapist work together to establish his short- and long-term goals and identify immediate treatment priorities, including icing to reduce pain and gentle ankle-strengthening exercises to reduce the feeling of stiffness. They also discuss temporary alternative methods for Kevin to maintain his fitness without continuing to aggravate his injury and prolong his recovery, including swimming, biking, and aqua jogging. Kevin is also prescribed a home-exercise program consisting of a series of strengthening exercises to perform daily to help his recovery.

Together, they outline an 8-week rehabilitation program for Achilles tendinopathy. Kevin visits his physical therapist 1 to 2 times each week; she assesses his progress, performs manual therapy techniques, and advances his exercise program as appropriate. She also advises him when it is appropriate to resume running, and establishes a day-by-day plan to help him safely build back up to his desired mileage.

They also discuss appropriate running footwear, given Kevin’s foot shape, movement patterns, and injury history. She advises Kevin to update his footwear every 6 months, or once his shoes show signs of breakdown, to ensure his feet and legs are properly positioned and protected. Kevin continues his home-exercise program; his physical therapist adjusts his routine as his strength and mobility improve.

After 8 weeks of patient and diligent work, Kevin no longer experiences pain or stiffness in the affected leg and resumes his desired training program without pain. A few weeks later, he runs in the 5K race—feeling stronger and more fit than he has in years—and sets a new personal-best time!

This story was based on a real-life case. Your case may be different. Your physical therapist will tailor a treatment program to your specific case.

What Kind of Physical Therapist Do I Need?

All physical therapists are prepared through education and experience to treat Achilles tendinopathy. However, you may want to consider:

  • A physical therapist who is experienced in treating people with Achilles tendinopathy. Some physical therapists have a practice with an orthopedic or musculoskeletal focus.
  • A physical therapist who is a board-certified orthopaedic clinical specialist or who completed a residency or fellowship in orthopedic or sports physical therapy. This physical therapist has advanced knowledge, experience, and skills that may apply to your condition.

You can find physical therapists who have these and other credentials by using Find a PT, the online tool built by the American Physical Therapy Association to help you search for physical therapists with specific clinical expertise in your geographic area.

General tips when you're looking for a physical therapist (or any other health care provider):

  • Get recommendations from family and friends or from other health care providers.
  • When you contact a physical therapy clinic for an appointment, ask about the physical therapists' experience in helping people who have Achilles tendinopathy.
  • During your first visit with the physical therapist, be prepared to describe your symptoms in as much detail as possible, and say what makes your symptoms worse.

Further Reading

The American Physical Therapy Association (APTA) believes that consumers should have access to information that could help them make health care decisions and also prepare them for their visit with their health care provider.

The following articles provide some of the best scientific evidence related to physical therapy treatment of Achilles tendinopathy. The articles report recent research and give an overview of the standards of practice both in the United States and internationally. The article titles are linked either to a PubMed* abstract of the article or to free full text, so that you can read it or print out a copy to bring with you to your health care provider.

Martin RL, Chimenti R, Cuddeford T, et al. Achilles pain, stiffness, and muscle power deficits: midportion Achilles tendinopathy revision 2018. J Orthop Sports Phys Ther. 2018;48:A1–A38. Free Article.

Maffulli N, Longo UG, Loppini M, Denaro V. Current treatment options for tendinopathy. Expert Opin Pharmacother. 2010;11:2177–2186. Article Summary on PubMed.

Jonsson P, Alfredson H, Sunding K, Fahistrom M, Cook J. New regimen for eccentric calf-muscle training in patients with chronic insertional Achilles tendinopathy: results of a pilot study. Br J Sports Med. 2008;42:746–749. Article Summary on PubMed.

Alfredson H, Cook J. A treatment algorithm for managing Achilles tendinopathy: new treatment options. Br J Sports Med. 2007;41:211–216. Free Article.

Maffulli N, Wong J, Almekinders LC. Types and epidemiology of tendinopathy. Clin Sports Med. 2003;22:675–692. Article Summary on PubMed.

*PubMed is a free online resource developed by the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI). PubMed contains millions of citations to biomedical literature, including citations in the National Library of Medicine’s MEDLINE database.

Reviewed by Ruth Chimenti, PT, DPT, PhD. Authored by Allison Mumbleau, PT, DPT. Dr Mumbleau is a board-certified sports clinical specialist. Reviewed by the MoveForwardPT.com editorial board.

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