What are they? What should I do? What should I not do?
Tendinopathy is a common condition that results from overloading a tendon. It used to be called tendinitis however research shows that usually not much inflammation is involved, hence the name change. Lower limb tendinopathy is common in sports including running, basketball, netball & football. Upper limb tendinopathies occur frequently in tennis & other racquet sports, swimming, & throwing sports like cricket & baseball.
What is tendinopathy? And how did I get it?
Tendinopathy occurs when the tendon’s main tissue, called collagen, becomes damaged because it is no longer able to cope with the load being put through it. This overloading usually happens when there is an increase in exercise frequency, volume or intensity. This may be someone starting the gym again after a break, when stepping up training in preparation for a race or fun-run, or when you start pre-season training after resting from your sport in the off-season.
As the tendon becomes overloaded it starts getting irritable and in some cases swollen. You will usually feel pain in the morning after waking up, when you move again after resting or sitting at your desk for a while during the day, and maybe at the start of exercise. Often in the early stages of tendinopathy your pain will disappear as you warm up, but usually comes back again after you cool down, rest or sleep. It will usually get worse over time if you keep overloading it.
Ok, so what should I do?
There is a lot of conflicting advice out there about how to deal with tendinopathies. Much of it is out-dated and we now know that old-style things like stretching and completely avoiding painful activities will actually slow or prevent your recovery.
For a great overview of tendon injury & management guidelines check out this video from Professor Jill Cook, a leading research expert in tendon management.
Here is a summary of the main Do’s and Don’ts for recovery from tendon injuries
• Continue to exercise at a sustainable level. As a general rule a little bit of pain is acceptable during exercise in a tendon with tendinopathy. As a rule of thumb 3 or 4 out of 10 pain level during exercise is okay as long as the pain stops within an hour after finishing exercise and isn’t worse that night or the next morning
• Get your tendon assessed and begin treatment early. Like many things the earlier you get on to it the faster your recovery, the less treatment you are likely to need, and you give yourself the best chance for a great recovery.
• Start heavy, slow resistance exercise. Tendons need a load placed on them to allow them to repair themselves. The best way to start loading a tendon with a tendinopathy in a controlled fashion is with heavy, slow resistance exercise. Look for a tempo of approximately 3 seconds on the concentric (lifting) phase and 4 seconds on the eccentric (lowering) phase. Again a little bit of pain during heavy slow, resistance exercise is okay as long as it stays at a 3-4 out of 10 level and does not persist after stopping exercise.
• Be consist with your exercise. Tendons prefer to be used consistently and performing your exercises regularly will help with your rehabilitation from a tendinopathy
• Stop exercising or using the muscle completely. Like we said earlier, tendons need consistent loads to be placed on them in order to repair themselves. Stopping exercise completely may temporarily stop the pain but that pain is likely to return when you return to exercise as very little healing will have taken place.
• Stretch the tendon. Stretching a tendinopathy is similar to itching a mozzie bite, it might provide some short term relief for the pain in the long term it will likely slow the healing. This is because stretching a tendon will usually cause it the tendon to get squashed against the bone it attaches to. This compression against the bone will usually aggravate the tendon and slow down its healing.
• Try and rush your rehab. Tendons do not have a good blood supply and therefore are slow to recover. In some tendinopathy cases it can take 12-18 months for the tendon to remodel and recover. Be patient and consistent with your rehab. If you rush it and try and increase your exercise and loading of the tendon too quickly you will likely aggravate the tendinopathy and slow down your recovery.