Probably many of you have heard of the Greek myth of Achilles. Back in the days of yore, myth has it that Achilles was dipped into the river Styx in order to make him invulnerable. The problem came because his mother, Thetis, held him by his heel as she dipped him in, so that the invulnerability covered all of him except his heel. In the end, after many successful battles, someone shot him in that spot on his heel, and he succumbed.
Because of this myth, often when someone has a specific, tragic weakness, it is called an Achilles Heel.
Interesting story about human weaknesses, but this can also serve as a precautionary tale for those of us who have Achilles tendons, which is everybody.
Our Achilles tendons have been aptly named after poor old Achilles because they truly are vulnerable to injury that can be a show stopper.
To be clear, the Achilles tendon is the one that connects the back of your heel to your two large muscles that are on the back of your calf. These muscles are called the gastrocnemius and the soleus, and both of them join up to form the Achilles tendon. This tendon also happens to be the strongest one in our bodies.
If this tendon gets inflamed, tears, or ruptures completely, it does stop you in your tracks. If there is a complete rupture, there is some casting involved, and a very long recovery. Even a partial rupture requires a great deal of rest, and lots of physical therapy. Tendonitis there can take months to resolve.
How could this happen? The common way is to overuse it, as in running too much, or climbing a ton of stairs all of a sudden. You can be predisposed to this type of injury if you have flat feet or high arches. The other potential danger for your Achilles is a chronically tight calf muscle, or a weak calf muscle.
In regular life, what do these two muscles do? The gastrocnemius, which is the most visible muscle on the back of your calf, helps you flex your knee, and enables you to go up on your toes. The soleus is situated underneath the gastrocnemius and basically helps you toe off when you walk or run, and helps keep you stable when you are standing up. For the geeks among you, the soleus does not cross the knee joint, so it does not assist with bending your knee. It is a muscle made more for the gentle endurance that standing up requires.
As the Achilles name implies, however, the tendon that connects these muscles to your heel deserves care and respect.
Here, I would like to divert a minute to explain that there is a specific, every day activity that many women do, that puts them at risk for chronically tight calves and a potential problem with this tendon. It is wearing high heels. Wearing high heels often can shorten that tendon, and make it very difficult to keep it a normal length.
Now, for the guys who are reading this, don’t stop now! You may have tight calves as well, from some of the other things mentioned above. And, OK, here goes: as we get older, our connective tissue (tendons included) tends to get less flexible and stiff. So, we really need to keep after it for that reason alone.
So, we have the potential for tear, rupture, or tenderness and swelling of this tendon. One other thing worthy of mention: tight calves, from whatever reason, can lead to low back pain. What? Yes. Here’s how that happens.
When you have tight calves and/or a shortened Achilles tendon, your body compensates by shifting your center of gravity forward. It does this because the motion of your ankles is limited, and when you walk, your stride is shortened. That’s when your upper body is no longer directly over your lower body, but slightly ahead of it. When your center of gravity is ahead, your low back can get an exaggerated arch in it, called lumbar lordosis. This causes muscle strain back there, and potential pain. So, shortened Achilles tendon caused by tight calves or wearing high heels a lot can lead to a scenario of low back pain! Doesn’t seem fair, does it?
Here’s three things you can do to keep yourself out of this pattern.
- Strengthen the calf muscle. A good way to strengthen is to repeatedly go up on your toes. To make this more intense, you can hold a weight, or do the toe raise on one leg at a time. (see below)
- Stretch the calf muscle. After you have warmed up, you can stretch this muscle by standing facing a wall, hands placed on the wall, and bring one leg back behind you, keeping the knee straightened, not flexed. Hold this position for 20-30 seconds and then do the other leg. (see below)
- Do ankle circles every chance you get! Do ten each way, getting the largest range of motion that you can with each circle. BONUS! You can do this sitting at your desk for a little break. You would be amazed how just doing that with each ankle can be really refreshing. Keeping your ankles able to flex both ways and all around is important for many of the things you do, including keeping that Achilles tendon happy, your back happy, and you walking with grace and ease.
All the best,
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