Whether you’re a pro athlete, a weekend warrior, or just like a pickup game, getting sidelined by an injury is the last thing you want. And one of the first questions you probably ask your doctor is “When can I return to my sport?”
At Chicagoland Foot and Ankle, our foot and ankle specialists see a lot of sports-related injuries, including those of the tendons. We understand that you just want to get back in the game. But before you do, you must recover fully so you don’t set yourself up for a future injury.
Types of tendon injuries
Two of the most common foot and ankle tendon injuries are Achilles tendinitis and an Achilles tendon rupture.
Achilles tendinitis is an overuse injury of the band of tissue connecting the calf muscles at the back of the lower leg to the heel bone. You use this tendon to walk, run, jump, or push up on your toes.
Achilles tendinitis most often occurs in runners who suddenly increase the intensity or duration of their workouts. And because the tendon weakens with age, it's also common in active middle-aged men and women, especially those who run or play tennis or basketball.
You increase your risk of developing tendinitis if you run in worn-out shoes or regularly run on hilly terrain. In addition, tendon pain occurs more frequently in cold weather than when the days are warm.
The pain generally begins as a mild ache in the back of the leg or just above the heel after playing sports. You may feel tenderness or stiffness, especially when you get out of bed, which usually improves with mild activity.
You may also have episodes of more severe pain with prolonged running, stair climbing, or sprinting.
An Achilles tendon rupture is a partial or complete tear of the tendon tissue that commonly occurs with jumping, falling from a height, or stepping in a hole. When it occurs, you may hear a pop followed immediately by sharp pain in the back of your ankle and lower leg that may prevent you from putting weight on the foot.
The most common symptoms include:
- Feeling as if you’ve been kicked in the calf
- Severe pain and swelling near the heel
- Inability to bend the foot downward
- Inability to bear weight on the injured leg
- Inability to stand on your toes
The rupture usually occurs in the part of the tendon within 2.5 inches (about 6 centimeters) of the point where it attaches to the heel. This area has a poor blood supply, which may account, in part, for its vulnerability as well as impair its ability to heal.
When can I return to my sport?
A high level of physical conditioning before the injury can speed your recovery. Research not only shows that resistance training helps reduce the risk of injury, but it can also lessen its severity and reduce recovery time.
Depending on the exact nature and severity of your injury, treatment may include medications, physical therapy, taping, bracing, or, as is often the case with ruptures, surgery.
As you’re recovering from the injury, try to maintain overall conditioning. Since you won’t be able to go full strength with the leg, look for alternate forms of training such as water running, swimming, cycling, rowing, or weight training the non-injured parts.
We begin working on your range of motion and strength in the injured leg as soon as you’re able to tolerate it. If certain movements cause pain, ease into them gradually.
We also let you know when you can return to your sport. Generally, it’s best to start slowly, operating at about 50-70% capacity for a few weeks to avoid injuring the tendon again.
Some good guidelines for a safe return include:
- You’re pain-free
- You have no swelling, which is a sign of inflammation
- You have full range of motion (compare the injured leg with the uninjured leg)
- You have full or close to full (80-90%) strength
- You can bear full weight without limping
Pain, swelling, limited range of motion, and limping can lead to an altered gait. This can create a host of other pain problems in your feet, legs, and even your lower back.
If you’re an athlete and want to learn more about preventing tendon injuries, or if you’re someone who’s already struggling with an injury and needs effective treatment, it’s time to schedule an evaluation at Chicagoland Foot and Ankle.
To get started, call us at any of our locations, or book online. We have offices in the Mount Greenwood and Portage Park areas of Chicago, as well as Orland Park and New Lenox, Illinois.