Your Achilles Heel
The Achilles tendon is actually 2 separate muscles that come together to form one tendon at the back of the leg, which then attaches to the heel. Those 2 muscles are the Gastrocnemius and the Soleus, both of which make that bulky calf muscle and work to point your foot and lift you up into relevé. They also work in reverse, or eccentrically, to slow down and absorb shock when coming down flat or landing from a jump.
When either of these muscles or the tendon itself gets tight, or if there is weakness, several issues can arise that may cause pain. The most common for dancers are:
- Achilles Tendonitis-- Swelling and pain in the tendon
- Plantar Fasciitis-- Tightness, inflammation, and pain in the long arch of the foot and sometimes on the bottom of the heel
- Sever's Apophysitis--Pain and swelling on the back of the heel bone, possibly with an enlarged "bump" on the bone. This is usually seen in younger kids, ages 9-13, and often starts after a big growth spurt.
- Rest and Ice!
- This is the first thing to do in order to get the swelling and pain to calm down. A couple of weeks off from dance class or pointe work may sometimes be necessary.
- Don't walk around barefoot
- Give your heel a little lift and cushioning and give your arch some support. Flip flops or canvas sneakers with no support aren't going to help you here. Good footwear with proper arch support can make a huge difference.
- Stretch and Roll
- Gentle rolling using whatever tools you have (even a tennis ball) are a good start.
- Work up to standing stretches as things improve. Make sure to hold your stretches long enough (20-30 seconds at a time), and remember--stretching shouldn't be painful. If it is, back off and go more gently, or you may just aggravate things.
- Begin gradual strengthening
- This is where seeing a PT is really most necessary--A strengthening program tailored to your specific needs with supervised progression of exercises.