The NFL isn’t ancient Greece but it still has Achilles issues

With another NFL week gone, every team’s rehab personnel of physicians, physios, and athletic therapists have a few more injuries to diagnose and treat leading up to the next game. Week 5 by the numbers:

46 = Number of players who missed game time due to injury.

6 = Number of injured Cardinals who left their game against the Broncos.

24.46 = Combined salary cap hit (in millions) of the injured Cardinals players.

17 = Number of Achilles tendon ruptures that have occurred in this calendar year.

4 = Number of Achilles tendon ruptures that have occurred in games the opening kickoff on September 4.

Brief shout out to the Arizona Cardinals who are still 3-1 despite dealing with a slew of injuries. Unfortunately, their string of bad luck continues as their starting quarterback, highest paid defensive lineman, and all star defensive back all went down with injuries this week.

But what I really want to talk about this week is the Achilles tendon. Why is it called your Achilles tendon? Here’s another fun fact about me (hey, I’m telling you a lot about myself, we should start focusing on you soon): I love Greek mythology! Back in the days of ancient Greece, there was a goddess named Thetis who heard of a prophecy that her son, Achilles, would die at a young age. To protect him, Thetis held baby Achilles by the heel and dipped him in the magical water of the River Styx. The water washed all over his body except for his heel, making this area of his body vulnerable to harm. Achilles grew up to be a great warrior and eventually fought in the Trojan War (warning: spoiler alert) where he was shot in the heel by a poisoned arrow… And died a tragic death. Anyway, that is why it’s called your Achilles tendon!

Now Screen Shot 2014-10-08 at 3.58.15 PMthat you have that really awesome story to share at parties, let’s delve into the anatomical and functional role of the Achilles tendon! The Achilles is the thickest and strongest tendon in your entire body! It connects your gastrocnemius and soleus (calf muscles) to your calcaneus (heel bone). When you contract your calf muscles, it transfers energy through the tendon and produces a movement called ankle plantarflexion (pointing the foot down). Every time you take step, climb a stair, or hop over a puddle, you are recruiting your gastrocs, soleus, and Achilles tendon to move the weight of your entire body! No wonder your Achilles tendon is the biggest and strongest tendon in your body!

So picture yourself as an awesome starter in the NFL. Imagine you are 3-time Pro Bowl selection Derrick Johnson (242 lb, linebacker for the Chiefs) and you are backpedaling to drop into pass coverage but then *pop*… Or defensive captain DeAngelo Hall (198 lb, cornerback for the Redskins) and you are sprinting to cover the receiver beside you but then *pop*… Or Super Bowl champion Bernard Pollard (225 lb, safety for my beloved Titans) and you are jumping to block an extra point but then *pop*…

real achillesNo matter who you are, what position you play, or whether you are beefy or skinny, there is a risk of injuring your Achilles tendon in a fast and explosive game like football! Think about the stress and strain that NFL athletes put on their Achilles tendons every time they accelerate, jog, sprint, or jump. And keep in mind these aren’t the smallest guys in the world! Textbook Achilles tendon ruptures happen when no one else is around and the athlete feels like someone kicked them in the back of the leg. Unfortunately, these tears always cause athletes to miss the entire season as rehab can take anywhere from 6-12 months.

Because the Achilles is so strong, I wouldn’t be surprised if these guys had some predisposing factors that made them more vulnerable to injury. The probability of Achilles tears can be reduced. This is why functional movement screening is becoming such a popular tool in professional sports. If the training staff can detect a poor movement pattern in an athlete that may lead to any kind of calf problem, they can provide that athlete with certain exercises to decrease the chance of future injury.

What makes your Achilles vulnerable? I’m glad you asked! Think of your Achilles as a rope. If you had to tow your car out of a ditch, would you rather choose a brand new, sturdy rope or a heavily used, frayed rope? Of course you want the strong rope! If you are over working your gastrocs and soleus, they will start putting increased stress on your Achilles. With a lot of repetitive movement in an overstretched position, the tendon may become inflamed (swollen). And when the tendon is inflamed, it acts like that frayed rope and is more susceptible to injury.

Now the question is: how do you stop the Achilles tendon from “fraying” or becoming inflamed? To keep your Achilles happy, you must keep your gastrocs and soleus happy as well! Restoring the mobility and flexibility in your muscles will put less strain on the tendon and reduce the chance of hurting it. Pop on a foam roller and work out the tight knots in your calf!

Screen Shot 2014-10-08 at 4.01.27 PMI hope I have accomplished two things with this post:

  1. Teach you some cool info to take home about the Achilles. Go around spreading the word! Tell your loved ones, your teammates, and random strangers on the bus!
  2. Motivate you to keep your beautiful gastrocs and soleus muscles happy. Use a foam roller for 30 to 60 seconds daily!

Did you nod in agreement to my two goals? If you did, you have failed. The real lesson is: don’t talk to strangers, especially on the bus. But have fun on your foam roller when you get home! Until next week!

– Chris (currently 1-4 in my football pool, sigh)

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