Achilles tendon injuries on the rise

Doctors say patients age 30 to 50 are fastest growing group

CHICAGO – Since she was six years old, gymnast Nia Dennis had one dream.

"My goal is to make the Olympic team," said Dennis.

But that goal was sidelined after a training session last year.

"I knew something was off when I was starting to run my tumbling pass, and I felt a pop, and my whole calf got tingly and cold," remembered Dennis.

She had ruptured her Achilles tendon.

Number of Achilles tendon injuries in US grows each year

The Achilles tendon is the largest tendon in the body.  It stretches from the bones in the heel to the calf muscles.

Each year, about 230,000 Achilles tendon injuries happen in the United States, and that number keeps going up.

Doctors at Rush University have seen a 300 percent increase in these types of injuries over a ten-year span.

"Many orthopaedic surgeons report that incidence is on the rise," said foot and ankle surgeon Dr. George B. Holmes, Jr.

Achilles tendon injuries are common in young athletes, but the fastest growing group of patients are active and between ages 30 and 50.

"I think we're seeing more of the middle-aged and older patients because they are staying active longer," said Holmes.

People are also participating in different types of events that may place extra strain on the ankles and the Achilles tendon.

"There are a lot more of these tough Mudder, Spartan-like races, that's really uneven ground and territory," said foot and ankle surgeon Dr. Simon Lee.

Achilles injuries are also more common in running, gymnastics, dance, football, baseball, softball, basketball, tennis and volleyball.

Achilles tendon injuries can be mild or moderate, causing pain and stiffness, but ultimately healing on their own.  But injuries can also be severe, where the tendon is torn or ruptured.  In that case, surgery may be necessary.

You can reduce injury risk

These injuries tend to happen when sudden movement starts too rapidly. But experts say you can reduce your risk of suffering an Achilles injury.

"The tires are the only thing that touches the road in a car, so they always tell you to have really good tires, so similarly the feet and the ankles are the first thing that hit the ground for everyone," said Lee.

First, choose the right shoes. If your soles have uneven wear marks, replace them.

Wear an ankle brace for extra support during risky activities, like a mud run.

If you feel any pain or tightness in your calf or heel while exercising -- stop.

You can also perform strength and balance exercises such as standing on one leg for 30 seconds or one-leg mini squats.   Do ten reps to the front, side and back, and repeat three times on each leg.

Finally, be sure to stretch before and after exercising.

Dennis had surgery to repair her Achilles tendon. She's already back to competing in gymnastics.

For more exercises to stretch and strengthen your ankles, click here.