Gentle Stretches and Exercises for Achilles Tendon Pain

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Gentle stretches for the muscles along the back of your legs like your hamstrings and calves can help ease Achilles tendon pain.
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If you have pain in the back of your ankle, you may have injured your Achilles tendon — ouch! While this injury can be debilitating (mostly because of its impact on your ability to walk), the good news is that proper treatment is successful in relieving these symptoms in the majority of cases.

The Achilles tendon is one of the most important tendons in the entire body, playing a role in moving your knees and feet, according to a March 2017 study in Current Reviews in Musculoskeletal Medicine. It's connected to both the gastrocnemius, which helps bend your knee and point your toes, and the soleus muscles, which are also involved in raising you up on your toes. It's also the longest and largest tendon in your body, according to UC San Diego Health.

Achilles tendon pain typically develops from exercise activities that overuse the calf muscles. And while exercises that increase pain — such as running or jumping — should be avoided, there are some stretches and exercises you can do to help alleviate pain (as long as you get the OK from your doctor or physical therapist).

Is It Safe to Exercise With Achilles Tendon Pain?

Since the pain from an Achilles tendon injury can be severe, you might wonder if you should even attempt to work out. As with most injuries, that mostly depends on the cause of the pain and your doctor or physical therapist's assessment of the severity.

You might be able to resume running and jumping after just a few weeks, depending on the type of your pain or injury, but in some cases, it can take several months, according to a November 2015 article in the Journal of Orthopaedic and Sports Physical Therapy. Specific recovery time depends a lot on how long it takes for you to be able to perform your rehab exercises without pain.

Gentle stretching can be performed to reduce stiffness after the acute phase of healing. And you may be able to add strengthening exercises within one to two weeks after injury and slowly progress as your pain subsides. For best results, though, it's best to perform these exercises under the supervision of a physical therapist.

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Why Is It Important to Strengthen Your Achilles Tendon?

Your Achilles tendon endures a significant amount of physical stress through your day-to-day activities. In fact, during running and jumping activities in particular, it's subjected to loads that are six to 12 times your body weight.

It's vital to strengthen your Achilles tendon appropriately to handle all that force. You'll not only help facilitate the healing process, you'll mitigate your risk of further issues once you return to your normal exercise routine.

Tips for Dealing With Achilles Tendon Pain

In addition to exercise, there are a few home remedies can help you manage Achilles tendon pain. During the acute stage — the first two to three days after injury — apply ice to your tendon for 15 to 20 minutes at a time, every few hours. Elevate your leg when resting to allow gravity to assist with reducing swelling that can occur. Wrapping your ankle with an elastic bandage can also help.

After the acute stage, apply heat to your ankle for up to 20 minutes, particularly before you exercise. This will increase blood flow to the area and help reduce muscle tension and joint stiffness.

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Achilles Tendon Stretches and Exercises

Once you've gotten the green light from your doctor (usually after the initial/acute phase of healing), you can start incorporating some gentle stretching and easy strengthening exercises. Here are a few options to start with, but always make sure you double check with your physical therapist to tailor a program to your specific injury and rehab goals.

Tip

Only perform these movements until you feel a gentle stretch. Stop if you feel pain.

1. Standing Gastrocnemius Stretch

  1. Stand facing a wall with your feet staggered.
  2. Keeping your back knee straight, bend your front knee and lean in toward the wall until you feel a stretch along the calf of your back leg.
  3. Hold for 20 to 30 seconds, and then relax.
  4. Repeat three times and switch legs.

2. Standing Soleus Stretch

  1. Stand facing a wall with your feet staggered.
  2. Bend both knees and lean in toward the wall until you feel a stretch along the calf of your back leg.
  3. Hold for 20 to 30 seconds, and then relax.
  4. Repeat three times and switch legs.

3. Stair Stretch

  1. Stand with the ball of your foot on a step, the heel hovering over the edge.
  2. Hold onto hand rails or another sturdy object for balance.
  3. Slowly lower your heel down until it's lower than the step.
  4. Stop when you feel a strong pull along your calf
  5. Hold for 20 to 30 seconds, then rest.
  6. Repeat three times on each side.

Tip

You can repeat the stair stretch with a slight bend in your knee to target your soleus muscle.

4. Plantar Flexion With Resistance Band

  1. Sit with your legs straight out in front of you. Hold one end of a resistance band in each hand and loop the middle of the band around the ball of your foot.
  2. Point your foot down as if you're pressing a gas pedal. Hold for two to three seconds, and then relax.
  3. Repeat 10 times, working up to 3 sets of 10.

Tip

Progress by using a stronger band once you can complete 30 repetitions.

5. Toe Raise

  1. Stand with your feet hip-width apart, holding onto a chair or railing for support and balance.
  2. Raise up on both toes as high as possible and hold for two to three seconds.
  3. Lower back down and repeat 10 times, working up to 3 sets.

Tip

Modify by performing this exercise while seated in a chair.

Eccentric Exercises for the Achilles Tendon

Focusing on the eccentric movement (in this case, the lowering portion of an exercise) is a specific rehabilitation protocol that's experienced quite a bit of success when it comes to recovering from Achilles tendon injuries.

"It's designed to gradually increase the stress going through your tendon in a controlled way; this should gradually reduce swelling and pain," according to a guide from Oxford University Hospitals.

Though these exercises often increase pain initially, the pain should be no higher than a three to four on a scale of zero to 10 — zero being no pain, 10 being the worst pain imaginable. Perform each of the following exercises 15 times, working up to 3 sets in a row. Repeat twice per day.

1. Eccentric Calf Raise

  1. Rise up on your toes, using your non-injured leg to lift the majority of your body weight up.
  2. Shift the majority of your weight over the injured leg and slowly lower yourself back down.

Tip

You can also do this exercise with both knees slightly bent to target your soleus muscle. And as your strength improves, stand only on your injured leg while lowering.

2. Heel Drop

Progress to heel drops once you can easily perform 3 sets of eccentric calf raises on your injured leg. And once you're able to complete both of these eccentric strengthening exercises without pain, you should be able to gradually return to your normal exercise.

  1. Stand on the edge of a step on the balls of both feet. Rise up on your toes with the non-injured leg doing the work, and then lift that leg off the ground to shift your body weight onto the injured side.
  2. Slowly lower yourself down as far as possible, allowing your heel to drop below the edge of the step. This will increase the amount of stretch on your Achilles tendon significantly.
  3. Hold for two to three seconds and repeat.

Tip

Make your heel drops harder by wearing a weighted vest or backpack or holding dumbbells.

Is This an Emergency?

To reduce the risk of spreading COVID-19 infections, it is best to call your doctor before leaving the house if you are experiencing a high fever, shortness of breath or another, more serious symptom.
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