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What is an Achilles Heel?

What is an Achilles Heel?

Have you ever wondered why our lower extremities, particularly our legs and feet, can endure significant stress levels whenever we’re doing active tasks like running, walking, and jumping? We can think of a couple of factors, but one of the known reasons is our Achilles tendon, also known as our Achilles heel. What is Achilles Heel?

What is Achilles Heel?

The Achilles tendon, also known as the Achilles heel and the calcaneal tendon, is considered the thickest and strongest tendon in our body, which you can find at the bottom of our lower legs. It is connected to the back of the leg muscles – the gastrocnemius and soleus muscle – on one end and tucked inside the calcaneus or heel bone on the other.

Looking into the appearance of the Achilles tendon, you can see how its width gets shorter as it approaches the calf bone. This is because the end of the tendon at the heel rotates inward at 90 degrees. The tendon is connected to the paratenon at the calf region, providing support with the elasticity of up to two to three centimeters.

How does this tendon function? Let’s say you’re doing an intensive task that requires footwork. In this case, both the gastrocnemius and soleus muscle will contract and bring force to the tendon as the foot pushes forward. On the other end, the paratenon will give support to the tendon as the feet move.

Behind the Name “Achilles Heel”

Fans of Greek mythology might be familiar with the story of the Achilles Heel. How does this relate to that part of the lower leg?

Very briefly, Achilles was born to a Greek monarch and mortal named Peleus and a sea goddess named Thetis. He inherited the human trait from his father, but her mother decided to make him an immortal by either submerging the body of Achilles in the River Styx or being exposed in a “divine fire.”

As it turned out, Thetis was holding his body through his heel, making that part unexposed in water or fire, making it the sole source of Achilles’ weakness. In a version of his myth, he would die by a pierce of an arrow aimed at his heel.

The story of how the term “Achilles Heel” was used in medicine is just as complex as the myth of Achilles. Known back then as “tendo Magnus” and “chorda Hippocratus,” Achilles’ name was suddenly associated with the damages on that tendon, with medical experts from the 15th to 17th century explaining how a damaged heel tendon weakens the person, affects mobility, or can be hard to cure.

Still, medical circles refer to the heel tendon as the Achilles or calcaneal tendon.

Common Injuries of the Achilles Heel

Injuries in the Achilles tendon may come from a wide range of factors, including stress from intense activities, poorly-fit shoes, friction in the tendon due to a growing heel bone, sudden pressure during exercise and other tasks, and other things. This is especially true for active basketball, boxing, track and field, and badminton players whose activities require footwork.

Listed below are the common injuries that your Achilles heel may experience:

Achilles Tendonitis

People with this condition may experience leg weakness, pain and inflammation, and stiffness in the affected heel area.

Bursitis

This is a less severe condition involving the bursa that provides a cushion and minimizes friction when pressure is applied to the heel.

Rupture

Symptoms of tendon ruptures include a feeling of snapping on the tendon, alongside intense ankle pain, swelling, and difficulty in relying on your toes when moving.

Tendinosis

Commonly associated with aging and repetitive movements, this condition involves collagen degeneration, making it more susceptible to injury.

Achilles Paratendinosis

This condition occurs with or without tendonitis. However, this one concerns the swelling of the paratenon.

Treating Achilles Heel Injuries

Dealing with injuries in the Achilles tendon depends on the type and severity of the injury. However, there are common remedies that you can do to relieve the pain and swelling. Here are some of these common treatments for damages in the Achilles heel.

  1. Ice Bag. If the Achilles tendon is swelling, you may apply ice wrapped in a towel for 20 minutes each day.
  2. Splints and Cast. For injuries that result in difficulty in movement, you may need a cast or splint for the injured tendon to provide relaxation and healing for a certain period.
  3. Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs). The injured patient may take ibuprofen and similar medications to minimize the pain brought by the injured tendon.
  4. Physical therapy. This includes exercises and massages that could strengthen parts of the feet, such as the ankles, heel, and calf.
  5. Surgical treatment. Severe injuries such as a ruptured tendon may require surgical procedures and healing using a cast for a couple of months for the tendon to heal.

Conclusion

What is Achilles Heel? It is named after the mythical half-human, half-immortal Achilles, whose heel was his weakness and led to the endpoint of his life. The Achilles heel or Achilles tendon somewhat has the same effect on us when it is injured or strained.

Because this tendon provides force and strength during intense activities with footwork, we need to take care of our feet to prevent any form of injury that may lead to a worsening condition. Discipline is also crucial, so it’s also vital for us to know our limits and rest whenever possible. It’s through these that we may be able to continue our lives with comfort and ease.

Learn more about Musculoskeletal Pain here.

Hello Health Group does not provide medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.

Sources

Achilles Tendon Disorders. https://www.foothealthfacts.org/conditions/achilles-tendon-disorders Date accessed, October 21, 2020.

Common Conditions of the Achilles Tendon. https://www.aafp.org/afp/2002/0501/p1805.html Date accessed, October 21, 2020.

Achilles Tendon Injury – Including Achilles Tendinitis and Achilles Tendon Rupture. https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/diseases/15225-achilles-tendon-injury—including-achilles-tendinitis-and-achilles-tendon-rupture Date accessed, October 21, 2020.

Anatomy, Bony Pelvis and Lower Limb, Achilles Tendon. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK499917/ Date accessed, October 21, 2020.

Strengthen and Treat Your Achilles Heel. https://www.sutterhealth.org/services/orthopedic/strengthen-treat-achilles-heel Date accessed, October 21, 2020.

Chronic Achilles Tendon Inflammation and Degeneration Injuries. https://www.hss.edu/conditions_chronic-achilles-tendon-problems-overview.asp Date accessed, October 21, 2020.

The early history of tendo Achillis and its rupture. https://online.boneandjoint.org.uk/doi/full/10.1302/0301-620X.89B4.18978 Date accessed, October 21, 2020.

Who was Achilles? https://blog.britishmuseum.org/who-was-achilles/ Date accessed, October 21, 2020.

Achilles. https://www.worldhistory.org/achilles/ Date accessed, October 21, 2020.

 

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Written by Dan Navarro Updated Oct 28
Fact Checked by Kristel Lagorza