Retrocalcaneal (heel) bursitis – Non-Surgical treatments
Ross A. Hauser, MD., Danielle R. Steilen-Matias, MMS, PA-C
A common problem we see is the problem of heel bursitis or the more medical term retrocalcaneal bursitis. Further and like many other problems we see here at Caring Medical, the patient has a medical history where he/she followed the basic guidelines of the anti-inflammatory attack on the problem without great success. These anti-inflammatory treatment guidelines while very successful for some, are not successful for others and the problem of heel bursitis continues and compounds.
For most people when they are told they have bursitis, the first thing that comes to their mind is that they now have a reason or a diagnosis for their heel and foot pain. The second item that that bursitis suffers “learns,” is that this pain is being caused by a swelling of the small fluid-filled sacs or bursa, that surrounds our joints that act as a pad to decrease friction between tissue and bone.
Now for most people, they did not need to learn this. The people we see have had heel, leg, and foot problems for some time. They have seen swelling in the back of their foot by their heel and where their Achilles tendons “should be.” Probably like yourself, many times the swelling became significant enough that you “lost your Achilles tendon in the swelling and could not see it.”
The treatment of heel bursitis
If you are reading this article it is very likely that you have become well versed in the use of various anti-inflammatories in managing the bursitis you have in your heel or ankle. While you may have been able to get the swelling, redness, and pain down at times, one problem remains. You are having a hard time walking.
A trip to your doctor may mean a little stronger dose of anti-inflammatory or a much more aggressive dosage to “knock out that inflammation once and for all.” But what if you have become anti-inflammatory resistant? That means you still have ankle swelling, you have tenderness in the ankle and heel and you still have pain.
The next stop will be continued conservative care with a referral to a specialist and likely a strong recommendation to cortisone injection, and for many people that is where the journey ends. Not with resolution, but with the idea that this condition will just have to be managed along because the inflammation will just come and go and you will just need more comfortable footwear. For women, heels will need to go during inflammatory times. See our article Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medicines (NSAIDs)
Chronic heel bursitis usually not a problem by itself.
For people who have had success with anti-inflammatory medications, possibly a single cortisone shot, a temporary walking boot, a heel lift and looser shoes, this is usually an indication of a problem with heel bursitis in a foot that is “not too far gone.” But how about someone with years of chronic foot problems and heel pain? Here is an example. This person had heel problems and swelling. They also had:
- Posterior tibial tendon (tibialis posterior tendon) tear.
- So this person also was having a problem with the arch of their foot and pain that runs just inside the bone of the ankle between the heel and the ankle. This was also noted by a tear in their spring ligament complex. The complex that makes up the arch of the foot.
- Peroneus brevis tendon tear
- So this person also had pain and swelling on the outside of his/her foot, leg, and ankle caused.
- Achilles tendinosis
- So let’s add to this list and injury to the Achilles tendon. In some people, the Achilles injury became the center point of their treatment as they may have described to their doctor an onset of pain that can be traced to a new and sudden burst in activity (a new exercise program). In many cases this acute injury has occurred from chronic wear and tear – the tendon has finally torn sufficiently enough to be considered an acute injury.
- Noticeable here will be a heel and Achilles tendon area that feels sore and tender to the touch with the soreness coming and going to varying degrees and makes clicking and popping sounds.
- Plantar fasciopathy
- So finally let’s add a problem with plantar fasciitis.
Now by the time we see a patient like this they have a story to tell. They have been online and bought balls to roll with the soles of their feet, they have gone on youtube to watch demonstrations of foot and calf stretches. They have been fitted or bought various ankle and foot braces and possibly a walking boot. They have also:
- Stopped running
- Limited walking
- Taken lots of anti-inflammatory medications
The complex bursitis
Not everyone will have a history like that which we just described above. Again, if you have a “simple” bursitis, it may clear up on its own or with a gentle nudge of medications and some rest and some ice. But the people we do see, their problems as described above are more complex. A simple cortisone shot into the heal will not repair all this degenerative damage. Chronic heel bursitis is usually a multi-factorial problem involving those structures previously described.
The treatment of retrocalcaneal (heel) bursitis will often involve the Achilles tendon because it is the Achilles that rides on the bursa. In this still image from the video, we see the relationship between the Achilles tendon and the retrocalcaneal bursitis.
The retrocalcaneal (heel) bursitis and the Achilles tendon
When the patient’s situation worsens, the last conservative care steps before surgery to be considered is cortisone injections. Cortisone injections, as mentioned, can help many people. However, doctors and patients are now more leery of the beneficial aspects of the injection as compared to the risks and side-effects cortisone may offer.
Does cortisone in the heel cause a complete rupture of the Achilles Tendon?
Here is a paper that was published in the Journal of Ultrasound.(1) Let’s let the medical researchers speak for themselves:
“Complete rupture of the Achilles tendon is relatively rare, but it is an injury of considerable clinical relevance. A common cause of non-traumatic tendon rupture is local corticosteroid infiltration. Corticosteroid injections may start a degenerative process resulting in partial rupture and subsequent complete rupture of the tendon due to a direct toxic effect, because corticosteroids inhibit production of extracellular matrix collagen and also because of poor local vascularization.”
This paper then went on to describe the patient case of a man who suffered a complete rupture of the Achilles tendon shortly after administration of local corticosteroid injections in the treatment of deep retrocalcaneal bursitis.
The paper then concludes: “This confirms that corticosteroid treatment which is not correctly and accurately administered may be a factor contributing to major injury.”
“We hypothesize that this part of the Achilles tendon might be most vulnerable to rupture after corticosteroid injections.”
Here is a paper published in the journal Bone and Joint Research.(2)
We will let the research team speak for themselves:
“Inflammation of the retrocalcaneal bursa is a common clinical problem, particularly in professional athletes. Retrocalcaneal bursa inflammation is often treated with corticosteroid injections however a number of reports suggest an increased risk of Achilles tendon rupture.”
In this study, the researchers wanted to know if the cortisone injected into the bursa area made its way into the Achilles tendon and could be implicated in sudden ruptures of the Achilles. So the researchers examined medical cadavers and injected an ink to see where the ink traveled. It raveled into the Achilles tendon. Here is the conclusion of this experiment:
“This study confirmed the existence of connections between the retrocalcaneal bursa and the Achilles tendon, especially rich in the anteroinferior (in front and lower) portion of the tendon, which should be considered a weak zone for substances injected into the Retrocalcaneal bursa. We hypothesize that this part of the AT might be most vulnerable to rupture after corticosteroid injections.
Chronic bursitis – the evaluation – looking for a secondary cause
In the example given above, we demonstrated how bursitis can be part of a multiple factorial problem. When someone continues to have problems with their bursitis and it has become chronic bursitis that has not responded to rest and the other treatments mentioned above, in these cases we want to explore and evaluate the possibility of a secondary cause to the problem.
In the case of heel or retrocalcaneal bursitis, it can be the Achilles tendon causing an issue. Often we will perform an ultrasound of the heel area and the Achilles tendon and find injuries to the tendon in the presence of this bursitis. These injuries would be Achilles tear, tendinopathy which is tendon degeneration, and chronic tissue damage.
The reason why someone will develop bursitis or swelling of this bursa is that the Achilles tendon itself is damaged and to protect itself, the Achilles will thicken, swell and expand. This expanded and swelled Achilles will put great pressure and cause more friction on this bursa. The bursa’s response to this new pressure? Swelling and the “itis,” of inflammation. Bursitis – “inflammation of the bursa.” This is why cortisone can be risky. The anti-inflammatory properties of the cortisone to try to calm down the bursa will further injure the Achilles tendon as demonstrated in the research above.
In these cases, we would treat the Achilles tendon with Prolotherapy or PRP which is platelet rich plasma to work to repair the whole tendon and grow new healthy tissue so that this bursa no longer has to swell.
Prolotherapy and PRP: An introduction to non-surgical regenerative injection options
Prolotherapy is a regenerative injection technique that stimulates the repair of injured tissue. In this case, the Achilles tendon that is impacting the Retrocalcaneal bursa.
In 2016, Caring Medical published our review of Prolotherapy in the journal: Clinical Medicine Insights Arthritis and Musculoskeletal Disorders. (3) Here we wrote:
- “Consensus is growing regarding the efficacy of dextrose prolotherapy as an alternative to surgery for patients with chronic tendinopathy who have persistent pain despite appropriate rehabilitative exercise.”
Sometimes we may have to differentiate the treatment based on the type of injury. We can inject dextrose into a degenerative tendon and regenerate tissue but if we’re trying to essentially glue back fibers from a more significant tear, we get healing factor cells from the patient. This would be platelet rich plasma or PRP cells that come from the patient’s own blood. These cells are injected into the tendon using ultrasound guidance.
A brief discussion of ultrasound diagnosis and Prolotherapy treatments for Achilles tendon problems
A transcript summary and explanatory notes are below the video.
Danielle R. Steilen-Matias, MMS, PA-C.
- We do see a lot of patients with Achilles tendon pain. These are typically avid athletes, runners, hikers, etc.
- When these patients come to see us for these problems, we can use an ultrasound image to help show us tears and tendon degeneration. Later during treatment, we can use the ultrasound to help guide our injections into the specific problem areas of injury.
- At 0:55 of the video the ultrasound imaging begins
- Often times we find that patients with chronic Achilles pain have more of an issue with degeneration as compared to acute tearing or inflammation. This means that the tendon is becoming weaker because it is wearing out. This is when we can have a good expectation that we can help this patient with Prolotherapy injections to strengthen the tendon.
Noninsertional Achilles Tendinitis and Insertional Achilles Tendinitis
- Noninsertional Achilles Tendinitis is where the tendon has begun to fray and break down in the middle of the Achilles tendon. This is an injury more typical of active patients.
- Insertional Achilles Tendinitis occurs closer to the heel area where the Achilles attaches or inserts itself to the heel bone.
In both conditions, the tendon seeks a way to stabilize itself and the heel-ankle complex area. It does so by calcifying (hardening) and by forming bone spurs on the heel.
Chronic Recalcitrant (Difficult to treat) Achilles Tendinopathies and Prevention of Achilles tendon rupture: Introducing Platelet Rich Plasma Therapy
We do see many patients who have had failed Platelet Rich Plasma treatments. One of the reasons for the failure is not adequate treatment. PRP is usually not a single miracle injection. We will explain this below.
Platelet Rich Plasma Therapy is an autologous derivative of whole blood that contains a supraphysiological (greater than the normal amount) concentration of platelets. You can learn more about this treatment here What is Platelet Rich Plasma Therapy?
Doctors writing in the Journal of tissue engineering and regenerative medicine have made the case that platelet rich plasma injections awaken and stimulate native stem cells to repair Achilles tendon damage. Here are the bullet points:
- The study’s purpose was to investigate whether platelet-rich plasma would activate tendon-derived stem cells to promote regeneration of Achilles tendon post-rupture in rats.
- In the in vitro study, platelet rich growth factors significantly enhanced cell DNA synthesis (cell replication) improved viability and promoted proliferation, while facilitating cell migration and the recruitment of tendon-derived stem cells.
- In other words, PRP promoted the creation and multiplication of stem cells.(4)
What does this mean to the patient?
- More evidence that PRP can non-surgically repair an Achilles tendon in various degrees of rupture and tear.
In addition to the research cited above, another Italian research team evaluated the long-term clinical outcome in patients affected by mid-portion Chronic Recalcitrant Achilles Tendinopathies (CRAT) treated with administration of single platelet-rich plasma (PRP).
A total of 73 patients age 43 years old predominantly males had 83 tendons treated with a single PRP injection. They were then evaluated using standard scoring systems.
Here are their results
- 91.6% were rated as satisfactory and patients would repeat the treatment.
- 8.4% were classified as unsatisfactory at the 6 months follow-up and underwent a second PRP injection.
- In addition to this, patients reported no Achilles tendon rupture.
Therefore the conclusion: The use of a single PRP injection can, therefore, be a safe and attractive alternative in the treatment of non-insertional CRATs.(5)
For patients who have already received steroid injections or surgery for Achilles tendinopathy, but still have pain, Prolotherapy and Platelet Rich Plasma Injections may be a good regenerative treatment to consider to improve the entire heel, Achilles, ankle complex, especially with tight Achilles tendon pain that may be causing Equinus a condition that limits the motion of the ankle.
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