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Biomechanics Sports Medicine Tendinopathy

Heel Lifts and Achilles Tendonitis (Tendinopathy) (repost 2008)

Point / Counter Point: The Truth is Out There Somewhere (or maybe here)

Every now and then the “Fear Factor” comes to the Internet. And if you travel the running blogosphere, you’ll discover that sometimes it takes the form of a red alert for heel lifts for Achilles tendonitis. It seems that some would rather have you run in pain or give up because of the pain for fear that a 1/8″, 1/4″ or 3/8″ lift which alleviates the pain could cause a tendon to “pop”. There is evidence that the sound of a tendon popping may come after an indiscriminate intratendinous injection of steroid though. 

The truth is one should pay attention to what your body is telling you. Running in pain which causes an alteration in form is not good. It will most likely lead to both your original injury not improving, and a few additional injuries because of your altered gait.   

With the knowledge that medicine is an art and a science, it is probably best to avoid dogmatic opinions such as  “no, no ,no” to a heel lift. While some will be helped with shoe and surface corrections, orthotics, stretching and strengthening alone, the addition of a 1/8 – 3/8″ heel lift can often make the difference in both comfort and eventual healing of this condition. The lift is used on both sides to avoid creating a longer leg and altering the gait in such a manner that could create low back pain, hip pain or other problems in the absence of the affected leg being a short limb. The lift is best made of a non-compressible material. It is extremely important to avoid compressible materials which will lead to continued slow stretch movement which could add to either activating the stretch reflex of the achilles tendon or allow for eccentric contraction of the muscle-tendinous complex. This may work to inhibit the healing of the tendon, and stop the individual from being able to run without pain. We certainly, and the ladies among us, especially, will vary our heels by much more than this over the course of a week. A slight change in the heel contact and foot angle should not put your Achilles tendon at greater risk of injury. 

While there are flaws in evidence based medicine and in the ability of us to accurately predict those most likely to become injured, there is  no evidence that 1/8 to 3/8 ” lifts cause ruptured Achilles tendons. Not even the slightest hint that muscles and tendons would be ruined by such a lift or adapted so much that you’ll never be the same. I do not know of any study that shows a 1/4″ lift used for a limited amount of time each day could shorten the muscle/tendon complex. There is adequate time spent in other shoes, barefoot, and even doing stretching exercises. 

Running in pain without a heel lift, or more dramatically running on a soft surfacer with a mushy, over cushioned shoe or a racing flat is far more likely to lead to chronic pain and disability. Proper orthotics are a must, along with avoiding over cushioned running shoes to prevent the tendon while functioning from being over stretched and causing eccentric working of the muscle-tendon complex . There seems to be no reason to avoid a heel lift, but it is not the be all and end all of a program to treat Achilles tendonitis. 

For more details:

Website article: Dr. Pribut on Achilles Tendon Injuries

 Previous Blog entry on Achilles Tendon and stretching

Quick Search of Textbook Comments On Heel Lifts:

I wasn’t sure what I’d find in the texts, but thought it would be interesting to see what other minds have come up with on this issue. I did not think that Noakes would agree with the heel lift, but he did. I do not know what is the scientific basis or aggregate clinical experience to imply that heel lifts are the worst possible therapy for this problem. 

Alfredson, H. and Cook, J. in Clinical Sports Medicine, 3rd Edition eds. Bruckner et. al. McGraw Hill 2006, reprinted 2007. Chapter 32 “Pain in the Achilles Region” p.  606 “A heel lift worn inside both shoes (0.5 – 1.0 cm, .25-0.5 “) is a good practical way of unloading the region. 

Alfredson is famous for his self termed “painful” eccentric stretching for non-insertional Achilles tendinopathy. He has published numerous articles on Achilles tendon problems and on the treatment of them. I am not convinced that eccentric stretching is appropriate in as many cases it is recommended. If you find something isn’t working, including the eccentric work is not helping, you need to change the approach. Measurements have shown that the calf is often weak in eccentric strength when one has Achilles tendonitis. One approach is to work on strengthening that (which can be painful). The other is to diminish the pain by lessening stresses which add to the eccentric contraction strength required. Both approaches and sometimes a combination may be appropriate for different patients and at different times for a specific patient.  I continue  to read Alfredson’s  articles with interest. (And in actuality will recommend his exercises in a manner and when it can be done without causing pain. 2012)

Bradshaw, C. and Hislop, M. in Clinical Sports Medicine, 3rd Edition eds. Bruckner et. al. McGraw Hill 2006, reprinted 2007. Chapter 31 “Calf Pain” Since the calf includes the muscles which create the Achilles tendon, we’ll look at comments in this chapter also. “A heel raise should be used on the injured and uninjured side”. 

Title, C. and Schon, L. “Achilles tendon disorders including tendinosis and tears” in Baxter’s The Foot and Ankle In Sport, Second Edition. Mosby Elsevier. Eds. Porter, D. and Schon, L. 2008. “The initial treatment for Achilles tendinitis is nonoperative. The majority of symptoms respond to rest; activity modification; improved training techniques; stretching and at times, shoe modifications and heel lifts. Initial treatment should include …At times, a heel lift (one fourth to three eights inch)….”

Noakes “The Lore of Running, Fourth Edition”  Human Kinetics Press. 2003. Noakes feels a shoe with a heel height of higher than 12 – 15 mm and says “most authorities agree that a 7 to 15 mm heel-raise should be added to the running shoes”.